For the past 45 years, the Endangered Species Act has been America’s most popular environmental law. In at least one critical respect, that popularity is well deserved: less than 1 percent of species protected by the Endangered Species Act have gone extinct. However, it also has fallen short in an equally important respect: less than 3 percent of protected species have recovered.
Recently, the U.S. Department of the Interior proposed a modest reform that finally could enable the Endangered Species Act to achieve both of its noble goals. That reform would adjust the regulatory burdens felt by private landowners based on the degree of threats a species faces, aligning the incentives of property owners with the interests of vulnerable species.
As a species recovers, relaxed regulations will reward property owners for their role in that recovery, creating a necessary incentive for landowners to restore and improve endangered species habitat. Equally important, regulations will become more restrictive if a species declines, encouraging property owners to proactively protect less-vulnerable species to avoid this consequence. Importantly, the strict regulations for the most at-risk species will be unchanged, ensuring that the Endangered Species Act will continue to effectively prevent extinction.
Experts long have recognized the importance of landowner incentives to protecting and recovering endangered species. They have warned, for example, that overly punitive regulations may, perversely, encourage property owners to “shoot, shovel and shut up,” rather than to accommodate rare species on their land.
But incentives matter for an additional reason. They’re essential to encourage property owners to manage their lands to benefit species. For most endangered species, simply leaving them alone is not enough to recover them. Instead, active efforts are necessary to enlarge and improve habitat.
As many conservationists can attest, restoring habitat and recovering wildlife populations is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive — which is why it is praiseworthy that environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy undertake this effort voluntarily. But, to maximize the rate at which we recover endangered species, it is essential that there be an incentive for more property owners to restore and improve habitat.
Interior’s proposed reform will provide that much-needed incentive. Property owners should be rewarded when they contribute to the recovery of an endangered species. Yet, for decades, Interior has imposed the same burdensome — and controversial — regulations on property owners, regardless of whether a species is improving or declining. This has bred conflict and resentment, rather than cooperation and collaboration. And it has contributed mightily to the low recovery rate for endangered species.
In a recent report for the Property and Environment Research Center, I explain how this reform will build on several innovative conservation efforts undertaken during the Obama administration. For several high-profile species, including the greater sage grouse, gopher tortoise, and dunes sagebrush lizard, federal officials worked with states, property owners and conservation groups to develop voluntary plans to protect species and avoid burdensome, and potentially counterproductive, federal regulation under the Endangered Species Act. Those past efforts provide powerful evidence that this tweak will pay large dividends for endangered species.
For example, the lesser prairie chicken — a grouse found in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico — dwindled to a mere 19,000 birds in 2013. Rather than letting the species be listed and top-down federal regulation imposed, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, working with property owners and conservation groups, developed an ambitious plan to recover the species, relying on voluntary measures and landowner-conservationist collaborations.
In the first six years, the plan has raised $64 million for lesser prairie chicken recovery efforts and conserved more than 150,000 acres of habitat. The plan already is paying off for the species. This month, the latest population survey was released, finding the population has climbed to 38,637 — a 30 percent increase over the prior year and a doubling of the population from when this effort began. As a result of this collaborative conservation effort, the species is well on its way to its long-term recovery goal of 67,000 birds.
More endangered species should be put on the road to recovery. Interior’s proposed reform would make collaborations like that responsible for the lesser prairie chicken’s turn-around more common by boosting the incentives for states, property owners, and conservationists to work together toward species recovery. According to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Eric Holst, such collaborations “are the only approaches” to species recovery “that are likely to work going forward.” That Interior is pursuing reform to make them more common is good news for both the regulated public and rare species.
This article originally appeared in The Hill.