Environmental Defense has asked the US Fish and Wildlife Service for authorization to administer a Safe Harbor program for landowners in 25 rural counties in the Hill Country. If authorization is granted, Environmental Defense will be able to provide regulatory assurances to landowners who choose to protect two bird species, the golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo, that nest in central Texas. Through the program, landowners who agree to take steps to restore habitat for the birds will receive a guarantee from the federal government that he/she will not incur liability under the federal Endangered Species Act if the landowner attracts birds to the property.
The Safe Harbor program was created to stem conflict between landowners and those seeking to protect endangered species. Under Safe Harbor agreements, landowners agree to practices that promote the growth of the endangered species without fear of land use restrictions. Currently there are approximately 1.5 million acres of Safe Harbor programs.
"This novel conservation program aims to reduce conflict by assuring private landowners that there will be no new restrictions on their property if they voluntarily help endangered species increase on their land," said Michael Bean, head of the Environmental Defense wildlife program and one of the creators of Safe Harbor. "In place of the phrase 'shoot, shovel and shut up' that captured the sentiments of many rural landowners, now landowners are beginning to sign up, smile, and show off."
In the Texas Hill Country, Environmental Defense is administering a program with ranchers to restore the black-capped vireo, an endangered songbird whose habitat needs match those of white-tailed deer, an important source of income for many Texas landowners through leased hunting agreements.
"The help of private landowners is essential to protect endangered species in Texas where 98 percent of the land is private," said Melinda Taylor of the Texas office of Environmental Defense. "Safe Harbor agreements make it possible for landowners and conservationists to work together to protect our endangered species."
In Texas, 13 of 19 known pairs of the Northern Aplomado falcon occur on Safe Harbor properties in the southern part of the state. Along the Texas coast, more than 60,000 acres of private land are part of a Safe Harbor agreement to protect the Attwater Prairie Chicken.