Frequently Asked Questions

What is a sage-grouse?

 A sage-grouse is a large round-winged, ground-dwelling bird with a round body, small head, and long tail, whose sole habitat is the sagebrush steppe of the intermountain West. Females are mottled brown, black, and white. Males are larger and, in spring, they have a white ruff around their necks, a black throat, a yellow eyecomb, and bright yellow air sacks on their breasts. The feathers on the back, wings, and tail are mostly brown, with some white and black spots. Both sexes have white bellies outlined in black. The greater sage-grouse can grow up to 30 inches long and two feet tall, weighing from 2.5 to 7 pounds and eats sagebrush leaves, wildflowers, and insects. In winter, sage-grouse can live on a 100 percent sagebrush diet. Chicks must have a high quality insect diet for the first several weeks after hatching. During mating season (March to May), the birds meet on patches of bare ground called leks, where the males perform elaborate strutting displays and females evaluate their performance and choose their mates.

Why do we care about the sage-grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem?

Sagebrush dominates much of western North America, with approximately 165 million acres of potential habitat. Early settlers traveling by wagon train called it the sagebrush sea. Despite its prevalence and amazing resilience to climatic extremes, it is an ecosystem that is being challenged by a combination of forces. Years of drought conditions and wildfire have accelerated the decline of the sagebrush habitat.

 

Nevada is known as the Sagebrush State. Its sagebrush ecosystem supports many animals from sage-grouse and pygmy rabbits to mule deer and antelope. In addition to Nevada, sage-grouse can be found in 10 Western states and Canada. They live at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 9,000 feet and depend on sagebrush for food and cover. The sage-grouse populations are considered a harbinger of the overall health of the sagebrush ecosystem.

 

Sage-grouse male lek attendance in Nevada in 2016 (28.2 males per active lek) was 15.2% greater than the preceding 20 year average (24.5 males per active lek) across the state, and a 19.3% increase from 2015 (23.7). The drop in male attendance was expected due to consecutive years of poor production and recruitment. Some areas experienced more drastic decreases than others, and, in a few cases, some areas exhibited a more stable trend. (Information compiled from the 2017 Nevada Department of Wildlife Nevada Sage-grouse Conservation Project Final Performance Reports). For Nevada, the potential listing of the sage-grouse as threatened or endangered would greatly impact the management of lands. It would limit back-country tourism which is a mainstay for many rural Nevada communities and other industries such as ranching, mining, and renewable energy development.

How are conditions impacting the sagebrush growth?

While the sagebrush is seemingly hearty with two kinds of root systems and depends on winds for pollination, it does not regenerate well after wildfire and takes a long time to grow. Once this important vegetation is lost, the terrain is more susceptible to invasive or opportunistic species such as cheat grass, pinon pine, juniper trees, and other invasive or encroaching plants that can compete with the sagebrush for space and nutrients.

Why is the Nevada Conservation Credit System (CCS) necessary?

Industries that impact sage-grouse habitats have been paying mitigation fees or conducting mitigation activities in recent years to off-set their impacts. However, the ability to objectively quantify the increase or decrease in the quality of the habitats through mitigation efforts has been missing.  Not all acres of sagebrush are equal and do not necessarily provide high quality habitat for sage-grouse.  As such, mitigation discussions have been conducted on a case-by-case basis and often have been a subjective process that can result in long negotiations based on multiple sets of information at the table.  The CCS brings in an objective process, based on best available sage-grouse science in Nevada, to quantify quality, or function, of sage-grouse habitats at several scales.  

On the credit side, using the concept of credit projects that have a requirement for maintaining habitat function over time is a step beyond the previous strategy that put the improvement on the landscape, but there was no long-term commitment to maintain the mitigation site.  In addition, giving credit developers the incentive of profit to engage in conservation actions provides the opportunity for conservation actions on private lands.

While many of Nevada’s most significant threats are something other than anthropogenic disturbances (e.g. fire, invasive plants, pinyon/juniper expansion, etc.), the need exists to sufficiently address fragmentation and other degradation caused by large scale human disturbances.  This need was the impetus for the development of a robust tool that could adequately measure enhancement and protection activities (credits) that would offset anthropogenic disturbances (debits) in order to maintain a net benefit to sage-grouse and their habitats.

What is the CCS and how does it function?

In general, impacts from disturbance (debits) are off-set by conservation actions (credits) and credit developers are rewarded for their good work.

 

Disturbance projects are evaluated for the number of debits incurred. Credit projects are evaluated for the number of credits conserved.  Those creating debits will need to purchase credits in an amount necessary to off-set their impact. For a given project site, the quality (function) of habitat is multiplied by the quantity of habitat (acres) – this results in a determination of functional acres for the project.  Functional acres are then translated into credits or debits.  Credit developers can make a profit on the credits that they sell.

What is a credit and debit and how are they determined?

Credits are determined by the amount of functional acres within the project site above general regional conditions (baseline). This can be achieved by committing to maintain the current functional acres over time (referred to as “preservation project”, though active management of the site is required) or by enhancing or restoring the project site and committing to maintain the additional functional acres achieved over time (referred to as “enhancement” or “restoration” projects). 

 

A functional acre is represented by the assessed habitat functionality above baseline multiplied by the total number of acres being considered for enrollment.  In general, functionality incorporates three separate scales:

 

Landscape Scale – Desktop analysis

Management importance factor (core, priority, general management areas)

Abundance vs. limited availability of seasonal habitats (breeding, late brood rearing, winter)

Proximity factor (distance between the credit site and the debit site – Debit projects only)

 

Local Scale – Desktop analysis

Habitat suitability index (provided by US Geological Survey analysis in Nevada)

Anthropogenic impacts (with field review)

 

Site Scale – Field data collection

Canopy cover – Sagebrush and other shrubs, perennial grasses, perennial forbs, invasive annual grasses

Height – Sagebrush and other shrubs

 

The following figures demonstrate a simplified version of the concepts of functional acres, functional acres above baseline, and credits generated:

Figure 1: Functional acre concept.

Figure 2: Functional acres above baseline for a credit project. 

Figure 3:  Credits generated from a credit project.

Note: Debits are calculated in a similar way; however, the post-project functional acres are subtracted from the baseline (pre-project conditions) functional acres to determine the loss in habitat value.

The CCS Manual and Habitat Quantification Tool and other documents provide explicit detail on calculating credits and debits and are available here on the Program Documents page. 

Who can develop credits?

Credits can be developed within sage-grouse habitat on private, tribal, and public lands.  Private landowners, on a voluntary basis, are currently eligible to participate in the program.  Guidance for public land enrollment in the CCS is being developed and may be eligible for enrollment in the near future. A project validation checklist has been developed to provide a quick, preliminary determination of project eligibility and can be found here.  

An active list of credits available for potential purchase will also be maintained on this website in the near future so that buyers of credit can initiate contact with potential credit developers.

How much is a credit (functional acre) worth?

Credit prices are market-driven and may be sold for any price that a credit developer sets to be financially viable for their needs.  There is no set value for a credit.

What is the contract period for credits or debits?

Credit project durations are a minimum of 30 years with 5 year term increments, up to perpetuity.  Credit developers may set the contract period for their project.  A credit buyer must purchase credits that are equal in duration to the life of the disturbance being offset.

What is the timing for verification and continued performance of credit projects?

Credits must be maintained over the length of the contract, meaning the overall functionality of the project site must be maintained.  The verification process is in place to meet this need. It essentially involves re-sampling the same habitat attributes that were used in the initial credit calculation with reduced effort to ensure the required habitat function is maintained.

What happens if a credit site is destroyed or impacted by an act of nature, such as fire?

The simple answer is when credits generated by a credit site are invalidated by an event or circumstance beyond the control of the credit developer, such as wildfire, the credit developer will not be held fully liable. The credit developer and CCS administrator will discuss if it is possible to restore the project site to recoup the lost credits. If agreed, restoration activities will be initiated. If the likelihood of success for restoration is low, the remaining credit obligation will be fulfilled from a reserve account maintained by the CCS Administrator, which acts as an insurance policy for the overall CCS and the contract with the credit developer is cancelled without penalties.

Are there restrictions to participation if land is already under an easement or other types of conservation contracts?

Yes and no. If there are current contracts on land being considered for enrollment into the CCS, the source of the funding and terms of any contract agreements will influence any restrictions or limitations. This will need to be determined case-by-case, but does not necessarily preclude the property from being enrolled.  Potential restrictions may include reducing the amount of credits available for entry or eliminating those lands from inclusion until the current contract expires.


This concept is discussed as “additionality” in the mitigation banking world. The intent behind it is to make sure that the conservation action that is off-setting impacts is above and beyond conservation that would have occurred anyway, outside this system. The intent is to ensure that credit projects are providing lift to sage-grouse habitats to off-set the impacts from habitat disturbance and loss. In addition, some funding sources have restrictions on earning a profit on top of their funding.  “Double dipping” is not allowable under the CCS.

What are the costs associated with developing credits or analyzing the debit amount (credits needed) to offset disturbance?

Costs associated with analyzing and calculating both credits and debits will be variable.  Some fees may be flat, but each type of project will require third-party pre-project verification and other costs associated with originating and managing the contract.  The size, location, and complexity of each project will have a direct influence on cost.  Additionally, credit projects require management and maintenance throughout the life of the contract. Each credit project for which credits are transferred requires financial assurances to ensure project success in the long run and protect the system from avoidable reversals.  The intent is for the sale price of the credits to cover all of the above costs to the credit developer.

Is a credit developer locked in at the number of credits initially established?

A credit developer must maintain, at a minimum, the number of credits that they have committed to in the participant contract for the duration stated within the contract.  Additional credits may be generated over time.  If at the time of the initial contract, the credit developer agrees to perform enhancements or restoration (e.g. pinyon/juniper removal, meadow/riparian enhancement, livestock grazing practices, etc.) that indicate measurable habitat improvement over a period of years, s/he may be entitled to sell these additional credits over time.

How do I enroll in the CCS?

If a landowner (or other authorized agent) is interested in participating in the program, they can download and complete the validation checklist located here and submit it to the CCS administrator.  Once the CCS administrator has reviewed the validation checklist, and determined that it meets the initial criteria, a more formal dialogue will take place to establish the next steps needed to be taken to begin the credit development process.