Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today visited South Dakota to highlight the proposed Dakota Grassland Conservation Area as a model for conserving working agricultural landscapes while benefiting wildlife and its habitat under President Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative.
Under the proposal, the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will seek to acquire easements from willing sellers on approximately 2 million acres of native prairie habitat to benefit wildlife and support traditional economic activities, specifically livestock production. The proposal will expand land protection already provided by the National Wildlife Refuge System through several wildlife refuges and wetland management districts in the area, including the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge and Dakota Tallgrass Prairie Wildlife Management Area in North Dakota, and Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota.
"One of the major goals we have established for the America's Great Outdoors initiatives is to work in partnership with private landowners to conserve America's working landscapes," Secretary Salazar said. "Under this proposal, we will join with agricultural communities and other partners here in the Dakotas to conserve wildlife and its habitat while ensuring the continuation of the regions' agricultural heritage."
Salazar conducted a series of site visits to habitat restoration projects on private lands and met with conservation partners, including private landowners, who are working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to conserve wildlife habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region, a grass- and wetland-rich area known as "America's Duck Factory" for its importance to the nation's migratory waterfowl population.
Salazar visited a working cattle ranch near Highmore, in Hyde County, where he met with representatives of the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, Ducks Unlimited, the Izaak Walton League of America, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, and other partners to discuss the proposed conservation area.
Service conservation easements are binding legal agreements that typically prohibit subdivision and commercial development activities, but allow for continued agricultural uses such as livestock grazing and haying. Under conservation easements, land ownership and property rights, including control of public access, remain with participating landowners. In addition, participating properties would remain on local tax rolls.
"Last year, federal conservation agencies held a listening session at Pierre to hear from conservation stakeholders about local solutions to key conservation issues in the state," Salazar said. "I am pleased to see the Fish and Wildlife Service and its partners are listening to South Dakotans and have proposed the Dakota Grassland Conservation Area, which will keep ranchers on the lands and forever protect the vital natural resources of the Prairie Pothole Region."
While meeting with partners in Highmore, Secretary Salazar signed two agreements with private landowners to restore and conserve wildlife habitat on their lands.
These voluntary agreements with the Service's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program (private lands) provide for cost-share technical assistance to private landowners and will achieve the twin goals of enhancing grazing regimes for cattle producers and wildlife habitat for federal trust species, especially migratory birds such as grassland-nesting birds and raptors.
In the morning, Secretary Salazar also met with South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard to explore how the Department of the Interior and South Dakota can work together to advance the goals of President Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative to support local recreation and conservation efforts.
The meeting was one of a series that Salazar is holding with the nation's governors to discuss potential partnerships in their states, ranging from revitalizing urban parks to restoring rivers to using conservation easements in rural areas to conserve wildlife habitat while allowing ranching and farming to continue.