How Serious Are We, Really, About Protecting The Yellowstone Ecosystem?

©Jim Peaco

This article was originally published in Mountain Journal.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that 23 species protected under the Endangered Species Act have gone extinct. This was a sobering moment that brought into focus a harsh reality: The destruction of ecosystems and loss of biodiversity is happening at home and not just in far-off tropical forests and distant coral reefs. These extinctions, which followed the obituaries of 11 others in years past, also made clear that for each success delivered by the North American Model of Wildlife Management, there have been many failures.

Unfortunately, the 34 plus U.S. species now confirmed extinct have a long line of creatures that may follow in their footsteps. With over 1,600 U.S. plants and animals currently on the federal list of threatened and endangered species, another 500 awaiting listing, and still another 16,000 identified by state agencies as being in great conservation need, it is clear that our work as conservationists is trending in the wrong direction.

The disturbing reality is that no matter what actions we take it is probable that additional extinctions are coming. As the climate changes and ecosystems fray, some extinctions set in motion long ago are already past the point of no return.

What we can do is endeavor to keep the number of losses down. Achieving this will require that we do things differently than we have in the past. Most of the history of American conservation has focused on public lands, either their management or converting private property to public ownership. However, to stem the number of future extinctions in our country, we must focus increased energy on private lands. How these lands are managed will be the determining factor in whether many species of fish, wildlife, and plants thrive, survive, or fade into memory–even in a place as seemingly wild as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Specifically, we should give priority to how we value private land stewardship and conservation outcomes are financed so more conservation opportunities can be realized. Success will depend on enacting policies and programs that enable property owners to see wildlife conservation as something that adds to their income statement instead of their expense report. It will be measured by the extent to which we are able to increase the area where landowners manage their property primarily for the conservation of biodiversity.

Private Lands and Conservation’s New Frontier 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nearly half of all species protected under the Endangered Species Act rely on private lands for 80 percent or more of their habitat. An additional 70 percent of “species in greatest conservation need” identified by state fish and wildlife agencies depend on private lands for their survival. These high percentages are consistent with the fact that 60 percent of the United States is privately owned and that within this figure we find 84 percent of the nation’s grasslands, nearly 75 percent of its wetlands, and 56 percent of its forests. 

When we zero in on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the percentage of land that is privately owned drops to 32 percent. While making up a minority share of the ecosystem, these private lands—primarily grassland and sagebrush steppe habitat in valley bottoms and floodplains—play an outsized role maintaining the region’s biodiversity due to their lower elevations, higher plant productivity, and more gentle climate compared to public lands.

The physical characteristics of private lands are why 93 percent of the important bird habitat in Greater Yellowstone and 80 percent of the winter range for migrating elk are found on private lands. They are also why one-fifth of the riparian areas supporting Yellowstone cutthroat trout are on private lands, and why private lands are the last redoubt and best hope for endangered species like the black-footed ferret. Umbrella species like grizzly bears depend on private lands for 16 percent of their occupied habitat and as much as 39 percent of dispersal routes that connect the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide bear populations.

But even in one of America’s wildest corners, none of these values are secure. As Mountain Journal has discussed in the past, increasing suburban and exurban development on the region’s private lands is fragmenting habitat and threatening biodiversity. Where development has not yet tipped the scales, conflicts between livestock producers and wildlife have resulted in private lands becoming population sinks for rebounding populations of wolves and grizzly bears due to private landowners having few incentives to let these species use the habitat they provide.

Indeed, the mountain vistas and big skies of the wildest place in the lower 48 are steadily becoming a stage set of a conserved landscape. Recent research has also found that five out of nine wildland health indices, a measure used to assess ecosystem integrity, were deteriorating on private lands in the ecosystem. For public lands, the ratio was six out of nine. No matter how wild things might look or feel, behind the scenery, the foundations of the extinction crisis are taking shape. Stopping and reversing these declines in ecosystem health requires conservationists to invest more energy and resources into supporting transformative conservation on private lands.

Historically conservationists have responded to the need for private lands conservation by expanding Farm Bill programs. But these programs will always be limited by the skepticism many rural landowners have about getting into bed with the government, and we can’t afford to rely on fickle government funding alone to address the scale of the challenge we face.

Improved regulatory incentives under the Endangered Species Act can help too. Policies like distinguishing how threatened species are managed in comparison to those listed as endangered, like the ESA’s authors intended, have the potential of giving landowners increased incentive to manage their land to increase a species abundance.

However, because the act is based in single-species management, these incentives risk setting the stage for a Sisyphean affair, one where we focus our efforts on a species in grave danger, while allowing ecologically damaging practices to continue that may ultimately push more species toward extinction, and continually find ourselves at the bottom of an ever steeper hill. While needed, these kinds of regulatory incentives require complementary policies and programs that serve as backstops and decrease the chance of this happening.

Increasing landowners’ access to America’s multi-billion dollar outdoor recreation economy via transferrable hunting permits and other vehicles moves the ball further in the right direction. Increased participation in this economy has been shown to increase landowner willingness to invest in and expand conservation practices on their property. More importantly, it would also allow landowners to profit from good stewardship, creating a strong incentive to actively engage in conservation through habitat improvement and other practices.

Indeed, making conservation, especially the conservation of biodiversity, profitable will be key to keeping extinctions in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and beyond at bay. One reason so many species have been pushed to and over the brink is because, more often than not, their conservation tallies as a financial cost instead of a benefit.

But profitability means doing more than simply compensating landowners for livestock losses or regulatory takings. It means establishing conservation as a vehicle through which landowners can build financial wealth in the same, or ideally better, ways than traditional agriculture and subdivision can. Only then are we likely to see the kinds of changes in land use necessary to deliver conservation at the scales required to ensure the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem continues to live up to the image those who call the region home, and millions of people around the world, have of it. The recreation economy will likely be part of this, but it has limited scalability in relation to conservation needs due to market size. More options are required.

Conservation is the Business that Enables Every Other Business

Thankfully, opportunities to make conservation profitable for landowners are growing. The loss of biodiversity is no longer just a subject of concern for Patagonia-clad environmentalists and backwoods biologists. Wall Street, and financial markets in general, are demonstrating worry over species extinctions and other symptoms of ecological degradation and what they might mean for the future of the global economy. At the same time, concerns over similar economic risks posed by climate change are fueling interest in so-called nature-based solutions to help overcome the challenge.

How serious is this interest? The New York Stock Exchange recently created a new asset class, “natural asset companies,” with the stated intent of “preserving and restoring the natural assets that ultimately underpin the ability for there to be life on Earth.” The hope is that the vehicle will help investors better access “nature positive” opportunities that support ecosystem services, which already provide benefits valued at $125 trillion. According to UNEP’s 2021 State of Finance for Nature report, $8.1 trillion invested in nature-based climate solutions by 2050 can reduce global emissions by 30 percent. That equals about $290 billion per year, an amount magnitudes higher than the fiscal 2020 Farm Bill’s $829 million for conservation.

Growing focus from the financial sector stands to significantly shape how conservation is practiced and for what end. It gives conservationists a chance to begin working with the kind serious money conservation deserves, and at the same time it could offer landowners in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem increased opportunities to profit from assets only they control—the land, water, and biodiversity that water markets, carbon markets, and biodiversity offsets depend on. Played right, this changing environment could deliver not only immense conservation benefits, but also an economic renaissance in rural communities struggling in the face of shifting global commodity markets.

What would investors potentially be putting their confidence in? Everything from keeping grasslands intact, to sequestering carbon, to supporting wildlife-dependent recreation businesses, to sustainable agriculture like carnivore-tolerant beef production. Indeed, a report prepared by investment bank Credit Suisse and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that sustainable agriculture was one of the largest tranches of conservation capital currently sitting on the sidelines.

Taking advantage of the growing interest of investors and businesses in conservation, however, will require laying some groundwork.

Three Priorities Towards Adopting A Business Approach to Conservation

First, the biggest obstacle to getting investment capital to flow is a lack of investable projects. Landowner groups, conservationists, cooperative extensions, and wildlife agencies should begin the process of working together to reach out to and engage the financial sector with the goal of deepening understanding of how the range of conservation markets work, what investors need, what landowners can provide, and what changes in land management and business practices may need to be made.

In this vein, the governors of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming should also task their relevant agencies with bringing conservation investment to their states in the same way they court investment in new mines, factories, and trade deals.

Second, landowners need to be educated by their allies to ensure they adequately understand these markets so they are not taken advantage of by unscrupulous operators. Conservation efforts can afford a limited number of bad experiences and any appearances of a looming land grab will only set back efforts.

Third, landowner groups, conservation organizations, and cooperative extensions need to create the necessary staffing and infrastructure to connect investors with landowners. These should include landowner advocates to help property owners navigate the complexities of conservation markets to ensure they are not taken advantage of.

As I conclude these thoughts, news is breaking that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is poised to announce the extinction of yet another species: the Maryland darter, a fish once common in the Susquehanna river and its tributaries. Its demise is largely a product of conservation not being a viable economic option, a business opportunity, for the watershed’s landowners.

The dark floodwaters of extinction are rising. Unless we begin doing things differently, we will lose the migration routes, dispersal corridors, and important habitat found on the private lands we have neglected, and it will only be a matter of time before those waters drown the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Research is showing that our old ways of doing things are not enough. We still have time, and thankfully new tools from global finance, to change course. We should take advantage of both.

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