Around 60% of the land in the U.S.—well over 1 billion acres—is privately owned, much of it in large tracts of working land, including farms, ranches, and forests. This opens a massive opportunity for private landowners to contribute to conservation efforts, something that Congress incentivizes through the Farm Bill.
The bill, which includes both financial and technical support for landowners who voluntarily conserve parts of their land, is now up for reauthorization, and the timing is good: Lawmakers can leverage recent scientific findings on a range of conservation issues, from wildlife movement to the effect of climate change on ecosystems, to produce a strong, relevant Farm Bill that can help people and nature across the country.
Here are five ways Congress can strengthen Farm Bill programs related to wildlife connectivity.
1. Expand Wyoming’s Big Game Conservation Partnership.
A promising partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Wyoming government is incentivizing landowners to protect and promote wildlife habitat connectivity on working lands. In October 2022, USDA Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack and Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to safeguard big game migration routes while supporting private ranch and farm owners who voluntarily engage in that effort.
Through the pilot program, Wyoming will provide local technical assistance and the use of state agency support when necessary, including to protect annual wildlife movements, maintain migration corridor functionality, and minimize future disturbance of habitat. The USDA will bring to the table dedicated staffing and funding for private landowners through various existing Farm Bill programs, including its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), and Grassland Conservation Reserve Program. This collaboration provides for conservation easements, supports the development of conservation plans, and offers rental payments and cost-share revenue to farmers and ranchers who help preserve native grasslands while maintaining grazing operations.
“This partnership recognizes the role landowners provide in maintaining wildlife habitat and is the direct result of local input,” said Shaleas Harrison, Wyoming resource coordinator for Western Landowners Alliance, a group directly involved with the project. “The benefits within the partnership provide economic support to producers for maintaining big game habitat through managed grazing and conservation practices. These are resilient and durable solutions that benefit everyone.”
Congress should expand this program to other states to maintain and improve wildlife migration habitat and increase habitat connectivity throughout the West.
2. Do more to protect wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity under the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
Another promising wildlife corridor initiative being developed through Farm Bill funding is occurring in north-central Montana’s prairie grasslands region. Led by Pheasants Forever, which received $6.4 million in Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) funding, the project seeks to protect big game migration corridors, especially in their winter ranges on private lands.
The objective is threefold: Keep grasslands intact through sustainable grazing; facilitate wildlife movement through fence removal, modification, or new practices—such as with virtual fences that can keep cattle in place while allowing for the free movement of wildlife—and provide grazing recommendations that ensure quality fish and wildlife habitat.
The RCPP, which is overseen by the USDA, seeks to leverage public-private partnerships to improve conservation on agricultural land. Under the program, the USDA can name “priority resource concerns”—which can range from habitat and water quality concerns to threats to plant and animal species—within one or more of the RCPP’s eight critical conservation areas. State, Tribal, and private landowners who can help address priority resource concerns are eligible for elevated funding and other support.
“This public-private partnership will help willing landowners conserve 60,000 acres of prime prairie grasslands and rangelands that are home to many big game wildlife,” said Hunter VanDonsel, Pheasants Forever’s Farm Bill biologist and lead for the project. “It’s a win-win situation where wildlife conservation can go hand in hand with economic drivers and heritage activities like ranching and hunting.”
Congress should make wildlife corridors and habitat connectivity a priority resource concern under the RCPP and seek to replicate the Montana project in other states as it leverages conservation capacity from myriad stakeholders.
3. Ensure that habitat connectivity efforts on private land are eligible for more funding.
By making small tweaks to existing programs, such as the USDA’s EQIP, Congress could add connectivity or reduced habitat fragmentation to the list of practices that are eligible for increased funding support. This would increase the environmental impact of EQIP dollars. Landowners would save money while increasing ecological connectivity on their lands.
Stephanie Adams, associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association’s Wildlife Program, said, “Landowners adjacent to national parks and other public lands are important partners in ensuring migratory species have room to roam. One way to encourage that partnership is to provide easy access to funds that further wildlife corridor conservation across public, Tribal, and private lands. The benefits to wildlife and our communities will last for generations.”
4. Promote virtual fencing to help manage livestock without blocking wildlife movement.
The development of virtual fencing protects livestock while allowing wildlife free passage on rangeland. With this technology, livestock wear collars that communicate with GPS and reception towers to form a virtual fence set by the rancher or land manager. When the livestock reach the limit of the virtual fence, auditory stimuli (often a series of loud beeps) emit from the collar. If livestock pass the fence limit, they receive a benign shock. Cattle have demonstrated the ability to rapidly learn the virtual fencing cues, eventually responding to the audio cue alone.
Congress should create a new practice standard for virtual fencing that would promote cost sharing among interested adjacent landowners and/or federal land management agencies. In addition, Congress should require the USDA to conduct research into mapping livestock fences across the U.S.; evaluate virtual fencing technology in larger rangeland settings, particularly to understand if eases of use changes with scale; and study the conservation effects of virtual fencing, including on sensitive riparian areas and important ungulate migratory habitat.
5. Encourage the USDA to include wildlife corridors and connectivity as priorities when implementing any of the conservation practices within the Farm Bill.
The conservation title of the 2018 Farm Bill included a new section that encouraged pollinator habitat development, leading to more USDA attention to the issue. A similar addition for wildlife corridors and movement in the pending reauthorization measure could bring similar attention to wildlife corridors and connectivity.
These five policy options could be adopted into the Farm Bill reauthorization without increasing costs. The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners are working to make sure the law’s conservation programs are innovative and used to their fullest potential.
Tom St. Hilaire works on wildlife corridors with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. public lands and rivers conservation project.