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Creative Conservation Inspires Hope This Earth Day

  • Madison Yablonski
  • This Earth Day, it’s time to reflect on the gains of conservation. Doom-and-gloom Earth Day messaging often paints a depressing future, but there is plenty of progress to celebrate. Here are three examples of innovative conservation happening all across the American West to celebrate our planet and our progress.

    Groundwater Conservation Easements

    Water scarcity is a fast-growing issue, particularly in the West. Aquifer depletion risks natural ecosystems being dried out and endangers the wildlife that depend on them. Groundwater conservation easements have emerged as a tailored approach to address aquifer depletion. Similar to conservation easements, landowners conserve the land over an aquifer while also voluntarily limiting groundwater pumping. In return, they either receive direct payment or tax benefits. Groundwater easements are intended to be optional and flexible for the farmer, giving an option of full retirement of a farming operation or just a portion of groundwater rights. 

    Colorado Open Lands recently developed the first groundwater conservation easement in the San Luis Valley. While the community had taken steps to address aquifer levels, pumping still exceeded the basin’s recharge capacity. If the aquifer didn’t return to a sustainable level, individual ranchers would face mandatory water restrictions from the state. 

    San Luis’s Peachwood Farms entered into the first groundwater conservation easement in 2022, saving 1,700 acre-feet of water per year since. This one easement saved enough water to solve the aquifer’s low levels, thereby avoiding the need for widespread mandatory cuts. “If by discontinuing irrigation on my farm, it means that my neighbors may be able to keep their multigenerational farms in their families, then it feels like the right thing to do,” said Ron Bowman, the owner of Peachwood Farms. The example illustrates the potential of groundwater conservation easements to help communities address aquifer depletion while maintaining agricultural production and preserving ecological values. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), where I work, is exploring ways to expand this innovative, voluntary model to conserve groundwater around the West.

    Elk Occupancy Agreement

    Every winter, elk migrate out of Yellowstone National Park onto private land looking for forage. These private lands are essential in conserving migration corridors, and without them, vital elk migration paths are at risk of development. Yet private landowners end up providing elk with an all-you-can-eat buffet and covering the bill—and elk aren’t a cheap date. Damaged fences, disease spread, and competition for food sources are all unintended consequences of these winter guests.

    To address this tension, PERC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition partnered in Montana to create the first Elk Occupancy Agreement in 2021. This agreement financially compensates ranchers for stewardship of public wildlife. It offers the landowner the flexibility of a temporary agreement, as opposed to a permanent conservation easement. Since then, the rancher has managed the land to benefit the wildlife, which includes noxious weed treatment and enhancing range conditions. This solution allows landowners to set aside valuable space for elk to weather the winters while protecting their own herds and crops. 

    Virtual Fencing

    Barbed-wire fences checkerboard the West, providing boundaries for cattle and establishing clear property lines. The dark side of fencing is that wildlife—including elk, pronghorn, and birds—get fatally caught and tangled in the barbs. To address this issue, PERC and other conservation partners are supporting a pilot project on a ranch in Montana to explore how virtual fencing can benefit ranching operations while increasing connectivity for wildlife across landscapes. 

    With virtual fencing, cattle are equipped with a GPS collar that emits a sound if they approach the boundary and then a light shock if they cross the virtual fence boundary. Almost identical to an invisible fence for dogs, cattle only need a few days to learn how these collars work and when to turn around. 

    This technology lets the rancher customize and modify where their cattle roam and allows for the removal of barbed-wire fences. By utilizing this new technology, wildlife habitats are restored and open migration is encouraged. In turn, ranchers save money on fence repairs and can more easily track their cattle. While there is much to be learned about how this innovative fencing tool can be applied, launching this technology on a small scale can pioneer large-scale implementation across the West. 

    All of these examples require dedicated conservationists, collaboration, and creativity. With more innovative solutions on the horizon, we should have hope this Earth Day that Westerners will continue their dedication to helping our wild places. 

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