WASHINGTON, Nov. 11, 2015 - A panel of government officials and environmentalists agreed during a Farm Foundation Forum discussion Tuesday that the Endangered Species Act can be a valuable tool for species recovery, but voluntary and cooperative conservation initiatives – that engage farmers and ranchers in particular – are preferable, and perhaps even more effective than regulation.

Jason Weller, the head of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), led off the discussion with a list of factors his agency sees as vital to successful voluntary conservation programs – that is, initiatives that bolster vulnerable species’ populations without ESA listings, using the greater sage grouse as an example.

  • Because most endangered species’ habitats cross or span private lands, engaging private landowners is key to species conservation, Weller said. So “you have to have a shared vision” of conservation and “a win, win” proposition for landowners if you want them to voluntarily enter into conservation easements, implement restoration projects or use conservation practices on their land.        
  • The conservation partnership “has to be strategic,” too. “You can’t treat every acre” of a species’ habitat, so resources should “go where you’ll get the biggest return on investment.”
  • There has to be accountability. The effectiveness of the project’s investments should be evaluated according to “science on the ground” and what stakeholders’ “report out” on how the work is progressing and affecting working landscapes.
  • Leveraging financial resources and technical expertise across agencies and the private sector is also vital, Weller said, as “no one entity can do this by themselves.”
  • Certainty is key, too. Weller said that landowners want to know that their investments in conservation won’t be forgotten if a species of concern on their land is later listed under the ESA. For this reason, federal agencies are giving landowners who agree to manage their lands in accordance with a conservation plan “30 years of certainty,” ensuring landowners who follow their plans won’t have to comply with the ESA. These agreements are known as Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances.
  •  Finally, trust and credibility are huge, he said. Conservation partnerships “have to demonstrate” how private landowner investments will improve ecological health and guard against future regulatory uncertainty without harming the productivity of their operations. “Meet them where they’re at,” Weller said.

The NRCS chief said these tenets were used to build out the Sage Grouse Initiative, a public-private partnership widely considered as one of the driving forces that led to a “not warranted” listing decision on the bird after years of litigation and regulatory uncertainty. A listing would have brought on land use regulations across the bird’s 11-state habitat over 165 million acres.

Since 2010, SGI has conserved 4.4 million acres – about 6,000 square miles – of sage grouse habitat and about 360,000 acres of private ranchland have been put into long-term conservation easements with the help of more than 1,100 ranchers.

Michael Bean, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks at the Interior Department, said the Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) decision to not list the greater sage grouse was made possible because of SGI’s efforts, “regular and sustained communication” among federal agencies, as well as agreements that provide landowners with an incentive to do conservation work – and several other unique circumstances.

First, the initiative’s partners knew of the Sept. 30 listing decision deadline on the sage grouse four years in advance. “It was enormously helpful to have the certainty (that) the decision (would come) at a certain date to force action,” Bean said.

It also gave FWS time to commission a team of experts from federal and state agencies to identify the threats to the bird and have them determine what extent those threats needed to be mitigated to avoid a listing. That Conservation Objectives Team Report didn’t say how to get to the goal line, but it “proscribed where the goal line was,” he said.

Existing federal agency and state management plans also provided measures to address these threats with voluntary and regulatory means, Bean continued, and the sage grouse conservation project had a focus – to fight the combined threat of fire and non-native conifer species.

Bean noted that other species – including the Arctic grayling and the New England cottontail  – have avoided listing under the ESA “as a result of early conservation efforts.”

Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society, also said being proactive about species conversation is critical to avoiding ESA listings, as is following the law itself.

Section 6 of the ESA “clearly gives the states the responsibility of coming up with plans for their wildlife and getting them approved through the Fish and Wildlife Service,” he said. “It doesn’t say wait until somebody else sues you. It says ‘Get on board, help us make a plan, help us make it work.’”

Rutledge credited the Western governors of the 11 states that fall within the sage grouse’s range as “stepping up” and being the real heroes behind the avoided listing.

“What needs to happen” in conservation generally “is very much what did in Wyoming” with the sage grouse, when stakeholders from every industry and interest were brought together “to come up with a plan that not only they could live with, but the sagebrush ecosystem could live with as well,” he said.

The Farm Foundation Forum panel also featured David Willms, policy adviser to Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead; Pat O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance and Wyoming rancher; and Alex Echols, managing vice president of Ecosystem Services Exchange.


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