Saving species, securing certainty

By Bruce Knight

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By September 30, 2015, to meet the terms of a court order, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) must decide whether or not to list the sage grouse as an endangered species.  Whatever the decision, farmers and ranchers who have installed voluntary conservation measures on their land to protect and restore habitat for the bird will be well prepared.

As I noted in my last blog, since 2010 the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has partnered with owners of private working lands to preserve and enhance sage grouse habitat on more than 4.4 million acres.  The cost-share or easement payment that NRCS offers helps landowners install and maintain conservation, but participating in voluntary conservation programs can provide something even more valuable:  certainty.

Talking with farmers around the country, I've learned that two of the concerns most have when it comes to wildlife are fear of regulation and fear of uncertainty.  When they take steps to improve water quality, they know if they've met their part of the commitment and a big storm comes that muddies the water, they won't be held responsible.  But what happens if in the course of their ranching or farming operations there's an incidental take of an at-risk or endangered species? Or what if the steps they take do in fact draw more birds to their land?  Does that mean that by trying to do the right thing they actually face a greater risk of regulation and more limitations on what they can do with their land?  It doesn't have to.

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That's where voluntary conservation programs come in.  In addition to cost-share dollars, there are several agreement options to ensure that when farmers fulfill their conservation contracts, they have also met both current and potential future obligations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

What is really important to understand is that the sage grouse is just leading the pack of a number of species that will be considered for listing under the ESA. Protecting species of concern is an issue that we in agriculture will be addressing for a long time to come.  FWS will be making more determinations in the days ahead.  As we intensify agricultural production to feed nearly 10 billion people on this planet, we will continue to bump up against societal expectations that give priority to biodiversity.

However, producers who choose to step forward early through voluntary conservation will benefit both now and down the road.  For those landowners, it really doesn't matter whether FWS lists a species or not because they know that they have met their obligation today and for the future.  They need not fear regulation or uncertainty because their early positive action has ensured they will be in compliance whatever decisions are made.

There are three options for landowners to nail down certainty.  First is a safe harbor agreement with FWS under the Endangered Species Act.  This is essentially an agreement with FWS that the conservation measures a landowner has agreed to install will be considered sufficient to meet the requirements of ESA.  This agreement permits a certain level of “incidental take” of the species related to farm operations.  Landowners may also return the habitat they've maintained or created to its baseline condition at the end of the agreement period.

The second option is the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA), which is a formal agreement with FWS designed to implement conservation measures that reduce threats to a candidate species to prevent the need to list it under ESA.  CCAA's encourage efforts to increase species' numbers by assuring participating property owners that completing the conservation efforts they've agreed to will meet their obligations, and they will not be required to implement additional measures in the future.  Also CCAA participants will not be subject to additional land, water or resource use limitations even if the species later becomes listed.

Finally, under the Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) partnership that NRCS and FWS offer landowners, farmers and ranchers can help restore populations of seven specific species:  the greater sage grouse, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, lesser prairie-chicken, New England cottontail and southwestern willow flycatcher.  WLFW provides technical and financial assistance for implementation of specific conservation practices, and participants receive assurance from FWS that they will be exempt from any incidental take of the species caused by installation of the WLFW conservation practices.  These assurances are good for up to 30 years as long as the landowner continues to maintain the conservation practices.  It strikes me that expansion of this program to other species such as the monarch butterfly could be key to finding win-win solutions for farmers, ranchers and the critters. 

These three options can help landowners help at risk species while assuring them that they will not be at risk for greater regulation or future land use restrictions.  Common sense solutions to challenges where common sense is as rare as the species themselves.   

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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