Feds bid for landowner help to save rare critters

Maryland's threatened little bog turtles may be getting some extra help from the state's farmers, under a new federal conservation initiative.

Obama adminstration officials are slated to unveil today (3/8) a $33 million bid to make more farmers and other landowners partners - instead of potential adversaries - in efforts to save seven rare and endangered critters, including North America's smallest turtle, which in Maryland is found here and there in marshy spots in Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil counties.


Called "Working Lands for Wildlife," the joint program of the U.S. Agriculture and Interior departments seeks to enlist landowners in restoring and protecting habitat for "at-risk" species by offering to help cover the cost - and perhaps more importantly, by pledging that owners' cooperation with regulators won't bite them later.

"We need to be able to assure these landowners that once they've done these conservation practices, the government's not going to come back and make them do more,'' Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview.


The program builds on the success of a similar effort last year to get ranchers in the West to help protect the greater sage-grouse, which has declined to the point it's a candidate for endangered species protection.  To help forestall that, ranchers agreed to adopt grazing practices on about 1.3 million acres in 11 states that would give the grouse more cover in which to hide from predators. Officials say they expect the extra grass to boost sage grouse numbers by 8 to 10 percent as a result.

Under the program, farmers, ranchers and forest owners would be asked to sign agreements to set aside, manage or enhance habitat on their land that's suitable for one of the seven targeted species. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service would provide funds to help cover the cost, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would provide technical assistance and "safe harbor" agreements that the landowner wouldn't be asked or required to do more later.

In the case of the bog turtle, farmers might be asked to not only maintain but enhance or restore the wetlands the animals inhabit.  Found in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in addition to Maryland, it's officially listed as threatened. Landowners could help it by grazing vegetation in bogs to keep them open to sunlight, or even by removing red maples and other trees that have grown up to alter the habitat with their shade.

Other species targeted for help under the program are: Lesser prairie-chicken, gopher tortoise, Golden-winged Warbler, Southwestern Willow flycatcher and New England cottontail.