On September 12, a group of Democrats announced that they plan to prevent Republican reforms to the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through Democratic electoral victories in 2019. Republicans view these reforms as necessary for the ESA to be more effective, pointing out that although 90 percent of voters approve of the ESA, only 1.5 percent of listed species have actually been recovered. Democrats respond that although species haven’t recovered, they also haven’t gone extinct. Regardless of which side is ultimately more compelling, everyone interested in saving species should consider how to engage more people in conservation efforts. Currently, the law actually deters people from helping protect species.
Often, the ESA unintentionally makes endangered species a liability for private landowners. When endangered owls are found on property used for commercial forestry, for example, landowners are expected to harbor and protect the animals. This often means changing how they use the land. A forester may no longer be able to harvest trees for lumber sales. The expectation that landowners do not harm endangered species is justifiable, but property owners regularly lose the economic value of their land in protecting species and are not compensated.
Given the lost revenue and damage to the value of their property, it should be no surprise that, upon discovery of an endangered species on or near private property, some landowners choose to “shoot, shovel, and shut-up,” or preemptively destroy potential habitat so that species do not come onto their land.
Engaging landowners in conservation is essential because 73 percent of listed species have more than half of their habitat on private land. Almost 40 percent of species rely entirely on non-federal land for their habitat. Discouraging private cooperation through perverse incentives depresses the full potential of the ESA.
Fortunately, there’s a solution to this problem: Change the incentives. Specifically, create policies that help landowners see endangered species as assets, rather than liabilities. If landowners were rewarded for harboring threatened animals, it would incentivize people to proactively conserve endangered species and their habitat.
One example of current policy that does just that is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through the CRP, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers voluntary contracts to farmers who agree to exclude tracts of land from farming in return for financial compensation. Farmers are expected to improve the ecological conditions of the land, soil health, and water quality, for example, over the 10 to 15 years that the contracts last. This reduces erosion and prevents the destruction of wildlife habitats.
The CRP also has initiatives that are aimed directly at helping save species. State Acres for Wildlife Enhancement or SAFE also pays farmers to exclude portions of their land from agricultural use and encourages them to plant trees and bring back ideal habitats for many threatened species. SAFE has helped revive the populations of the New England cottontail, bobwhite quail, and the lesser prairie chicken. The program also prevents the decline of species that aren’t threatened, such as deer, waterfowl, and pollinators.
The ESA is a foundational conservation law, but like many other regulations, it isn’t perfect. Efforts to improve it, no matter which political party is behind them, should include involving more people — especially private landowners — in conservation efforts. The CRP is just one example, but there are many voluntary efforts that could guide lawmakers. Amending the ESA to properly align the incentives of private landowners with those of threatened species is vital for effective conservation. As the renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold suggested, “conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Good reforms to the ESA should seek to do just that.