America has been treating the nation’s wildlife species the same way we manage heart disease. Just as we avoid making voluntary lifestyle changes and increasingly rely on drugs and emergency-room surgeries to keep our damaged hearts ticking, we are giving wildlife too little help until they are actually threatened with extinction. The tool we rely on to keep an ever-increasing number of species alive is the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. It is the ecological equivalent of using risky bypass surgeries, temporary stents and expensive drugs to prevent deaths from heart disease.

It’s time to rethink our approach to keeping the country’s wildlife species healthy.

There is little disagreement about the need to protect and recover declining species, but there’s tremendous disagreement about how to do it. The ESA was designed to do only part of the job – be the ICU at the end of the road, not an early intervention to keep species healthy or to reverse their downward slide toward endangered status. But a little investment before the ambulance is called would go a lot further than intervening after a species is on life support.

Congress is responding to pending high-profile ESA listing decisions like the Greater Sage-Grouse. The iconic and controversial Western species is the poster bird for why we need to help wildlife before the ESA comes into play. But, too little attention is being focused on programs designed to keep species off the endangered list in the first place. If the sage-grouse is listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the impacts on 11 western states, where ranching, farming and energy development are big business, will be staggering. Worse, depending on how we respond, the controversy over its listing may well hamper recovery efforts for it and other wildlife.

In contrast to the potential fallout from listing the species, we’re quietly making good progress toward stabilizing sage-grouse populations on some private lands where landowners are voluntarily intervening on the bird’s behalf. A recent report by the Sand County Foundation describes, in vivid detail, the stories of ranchers from five Western states who have gone to extraordinary lengths to improve habitat for sage-grouse and other species -- not because they were forced to do so by regulatory pressure, but because it was the right thing to do. Their experiences underscore the need for tools that help private landowners manage wildlife on working lands like farms and ranches on which much of the nation’s wildlife depend.  

Such tools are at hand. For example, even small incentives have proven effective in enlisting the help of private landowners long before declining species become endangered. We must also move beyond a species-by-species approach, capitalize on markets and mitigation banks, and address uncertainty about environmental change  through experimentation and thoughtful risk taking.   

Americans deserve a more comprehensive approach to endangered species that achieves what we envisioned in 1973 -- protection of our rich biological heritage -- but more efficiently, at lower cost and with less social disruption. Identifying species that are getting in trouble and responding to their needs sooner seems like the logical way forward. A big part of that approach is finding ways to help private landowners do the right thing for those species.

As the conservationist Aldo Leopold observed 80 years ago, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.”

Norton served as secretary of the Department of the Interior from 2001 – 2006. Temple is the Beers-Bascom professor emeritus in Conservation at the University of Wisconsin.