A Better Approach to Species Conservation – Incentives for Private Landowners

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-images-red-cockaded-woodpecker-picoides-borealis-florida-north-america-image41367699Last week I had the opportunity of participating in a small forum here in DC to discuss the looming challenges confronting species conservation in the U.S. and the options for protecting stressed populations that are either listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act or were being considered for listing.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity, “1,331 species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Of those, 745 are plants; 213 are invertebrates, including insects, mollusks, and others; 140 are fishes; 88 are birds; 83 are mammals; 36 are reptiles; 24 are amphibians; and two are fungi — lichens, actually. For both plants and animals, many more species are listed as endangered than as threatened.”  And the number of species being considered for listing is growing and in the hundreds, and includes many aquatic mussels.  This is bad news not only for those at-risk species but for communities and business sectors who will be significantly impacted as more listings occur.  The most recent proposed listing, as has been covered here, The Weed that is Whipping the West – and the proposed listing of the greater sage grouse – will affect a whopping 11 states, which could have huge impacts to the economies of those states. 

The threats to these species are often caused by a multitude of factors, including over harvesting, pollution or pesticides, but more often than not the listing is caused by the disturbance or destruction of a species’ critical habitat.  The real challenge to proponents of species conservation – and the really scary part for those who may be skeptical of private property rights – is that 80 percent of listed species occur partially or entirely on private lands.  The Endangered Species Act is an incredibly important piece of legislation that has one goal in mind – preventing extinction.  Because of the seriousness of extinction, ESA offers zero flexibility for listed species and any landowners who just happen to have those species on their land.  Once listed, a landowner can be severely restricted in what she can and can’t do with her property.  Serious civil and criminal penalties can flow from violating ESA by harassing, harming or “taking” a listed species.  And each year, the government spends upward of $2B to conserve T&E listed species.  Yet these costs don’t reflect the enormous costs to landowners in terms of economic losses, which run in the billions of dollars as discussed here in this PERC Report.

All this negative stuff swirling around ESA has resulted in some really really bad and perverse incentives.  You may have heard of the old adage, “shoot shovel and shut up” – given these liabilities, no one in their right mind would want a T&E species on her property or maintain habitat that might attract them.  Let’s take the red-cockaded woodpecker, for example, in the Southeast that prefers mature longleaf pines forests to nest and live.  Once listed, rather than increase the amount of preferred woodpecker habitat, landowners logically began destroying it for fear that their land would attract woodpeckers.  Get out the chain saw and bulldozer honey, need to make sure that pesky woodpecker finds no shelter here.  Hardly the desirable response if we are to protect the red-cockaded woodpecker, but a logical and understandable response given the fears about ESA.  In additional, listing often occurs with imperfect and inaccurate information about the condition of a at-risk species, because landowners are reluctant to give information to wildlife managers about the presence of at-risk species on their property.  Once again, why would any landowner voluntarily give information about an at-risk species on her property, understanding the ensuing consequences.  And this is where we find ourselves – an incredibly unhealthy environment to conduct conservation and manage our wildlife populations.

The real conundrum is that ESA is a species-specific statute and it requires us to react as opposed to plan, often times forcing a reaction long after a strategic conservation plan should already have taken place.  The lessons learned from ESA are many.  But one, in particular, if we are to do a better job at protecting at-risk species we must shift our focus from individual species to a more holistic, habitat approach.  And we must do more to develop the right kind of incentives to encourage landowners to engage in protecting habitats that at-risk species need to survive.

It is with that backdrop that I was pleased to be involved in last week’s discussions sponsored by my alma mater, Duke University, which included Michael Bean, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife, to discuss FWS’s increased focus on prelisting conservation efforts and proposed rule. FWS Voluntary Prelisting Policy (3)   I’m encouraged to see the Department of Interior proposing voluntary programs that will lead more landowners to act now to protect critical habitat and develop conservation plans for at-risk nonlisted species. Although the proposal isn’t perfect, and with some minor adjustments can be improved, I think this marks an important and positive shift toward a more sustainable future not only for at-risk species, but at-risk communities and jobs that would be adversely impacted by more ESA listing.  However, a note of caution – prelisting efforts will not work without the credible threat of listing (and willingness to follow-through), if voluntary efforts prove inadequate to protect the species.  I’m confident, however, that many landowners, eco-entrepreneurs, and corporate interests who care about these issues will respond positively to these new incentives, doing what is necessary to preserve these species for future generations.