By Greg M. Peters
When Rebecca Burton arrived at the NRCS office in Craig, Colorado, she wasn’t quite sure what to expect for her first day of work. It was 2019 and even though she would be working on private lands conservation under the direct supervision of NRCS staff, Burton wasn’t officially an NRCS employee.
Like more than 19 other conservation professionals across the West, Burton works to advance rangeland conservation through the Sage Grouse Initiative as a Strategic Watershed Action Team (SWAT) member. Many “swatters,” as they’re affectionately known, are trained in rangeland ecology or wildlife biology (like Burton), and their work on western rangelands is part of a shared-capacity approach to conserving the biologically and culturally rich sagebrush sea.
Burton and her counterparts are employed by one of a handful of the NRCS’s Western Working Lands for Wildlife partner organizations; in Burton’s case, it’s Pheasants Forever. Through a multi-year agreement with the NRCS, these organizations can hire and manage these partner positions to add much-needed capacity to the important private lands conservation work that is the NRCS’s specialty.
Michael Brown oversees SWAT staffers across the West (Brown is also a Pheasants Forever employee in a shared-capacity position), and the crew is busy indeed. According to Brown, collectively these positions have developed customized grazing plans on over 2.95 million acres, worked to remove over 333,000 acres of encroaching conifers, and marked or removed 318 miles of fence since SGI started.
So, even though Burton may not have known just what to expect on her first day in the office, the Craig, Colorado NRCS staff was ready for her.
“Basically, they told me, ‘You’re the partner biologist, and you’ll be working on sage grouse and other wildlife-related projects,’” she explained. “The office had a long list of producers who had requested a variety of technical assistance help. That’s where I started – working through that list with a focus on wildlife projects.”
It didn’t take her long to start making a difference. Kendall Smith is the District Conservationist in the NRCS’s Craig/Meeker Office, and he’s thrilled with the added capacity Burton provides.