Throughout the 41-year history of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), most conservation efforts have focused on restrictive measures to save species that have already reached the threshold of extinction. Recently, states, landowners and individuals have taken steps to help species that aren’t yet facing extinction, but soon could be. The Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has announced a policy to recognize these proactive efforts.

Its proposed policy would award credits for helping “declining” species -- those that are at risk, but not yet threatened or endangered. The credits could later take the place of federal restrictions, if the species is subsequently added to the endangered species list. The credits could also be traded or sold to a third party to be used in place of restrictions, helping recover the costs involved. In short, the proposal transforms the obstacle of uncertainty into a profit motive to produce conservation results.

ADVERTISEMENT

The policy builds on the existing “candidate conservation agreement” approach, in which landowners voluntarily commit to a plan to help a declining species and its habitat.

In contrast, a credit system would measure what actually helps the species. It is unclear how many agreements have been approved, but experience with them is prompting the demand for a quicker, measurable approach.

Participation in a credit system is voluntary but, once made, commitments are binding. The voluntary nature of the conservation measures seems to be generating genuine enthusiasm. As New Mexico biologist Grant Beauprez noted, oil and gas operators involved in the cooperative effort to save the lesser prairie chicken are now giving greater thought to the location of well sites, pipelines and other infrastructure so as not to disturb the birds’ habitat.

Another example of how the credit-based system might work involves the dunes sagebrush lizard, which makes its habitat in the dunes of eastern New Mexico and western Texas. Placing the lizard on the endangered species list would have jeopardized the Permian basin’s energy boom, but oil and gas companies teamed up with Texas A&M University to create a credit system to conserve the species without onerous restrictions. Oil and gas producers committed to work around the lizards’ habitats and ranchers agreed to trim back mesquite, which is also invading the lizards’ territory by preventing formation of the dunes that comprise their habitat. 

The FWS was so satisfied with the results that it withdrew its proposal to list the lizard. Sensible as the arrangement was, it is nevertheless being challenged in court and may be sent back to the drawing board. The litigation has discouraged these proactive agreements and could ultimately lead to restrictive penalties that will actually do less than the agreements to help the species. That’s why the FWS is proposing its new policy.

To be sure, there are details in the proposed credit system policy that must be addressed. The draft policy lacks adequate specifics about how the credits will be valued and places unneeded restrictions on the types of conservation measures that will qualify for the credits. There is also reason to be concerned whether the proposal contains adequate incentives to undertake the conservation measures in the first place, and the current draft prohibits credits for actions undertaken before the rules are finalized.

While those issues are addressed, the concept offers hope for a better, more cooperative approach to species conservation -- a welcome change. It is critical that the FWS work with state and local governments to be sure the policy change will be well-designed and that revisions continue to be made to help species and promote a vibrant economy.

It will likely take a revision to the ESA for these innovations to reach their full potential, but this effort is worthwhile. After all, this is how government is supposed to work: rather than just dictating rules and restrictions, we should encourage those involved -- biologists and ranchers, ecologists and energy companies alike – at the state and local levels to combine their abilities and expertise to find solutions.

The proposal may be a first step toward a better way of protecting species -- and Americans’ livelihoods.

Norton was secretary of the Interior under president George W. Bush. Baier is president emeritus of the Boone and Crockett Club. Both are members of the Conservation Leadership Council.  Follow the CLC on Twitter @ConservationLC.