Empowering Private Landowner Conservation

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:04/21/2016 Updated:08/30/2016

On Friday, April 15th I was honored to be a panelist on the fifth installment of the Species Conservation and ESA Initiative webinars hosted by the Western Governors’ Association, entitled Empowering Private Landowner Conservation. This is Wyoming Governor Mead's initiative to strengthen the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and make it more workable.

My first point is that the conservation market has shifted in the past 30 years from a public land acquisition focus to a point where today the principal conservation market in the 21st century is overwhelmingly dependent on our nation's ability to harness the latent stewardship capacity of private land owners, both families and corporate owners.

Recent federal court decisions have declared that the states have sufficiently filled a vacuum of lack of federal leadership and on the ground accomplishment in species recovery to be acknowledged as having a leadership role. On 1 September Judge Junnell vacated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' (FWS) listing of the lesser prairie-chicken in favor of the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies’ (WAFWA) recovery plan. Over the winter FWS went back to the court for reconsideration and the Judge wrote a commanding rebuke of FWS' position. The WAFWA lead effort for lesser prairie-chicken recovery has raised $51 million for habitat restoration, 180 companies have enrolled 11 million acres in conservation set asides. These are unprecedented numbers and commitments. And they point to the fact that in today's world of species recovery states are leaders; they have better research, better monitoring of species, better outreach to landowners, and to corporate partners, and better on the ground management.

State capacity and non-government participation has been growing to assist species recovery for three decades. New York State stepped forward to hack bald eagles in the mid 1970 leading a multi-state effort to reintroduce eagles to the wild. The whooping crane recovery effort was propelled forward in breeding and reintroduction by the International Crane Foundation and cooperating states. The peregrine falcon recovery program received a huge boost in breeding and reintroduction from the Peregrine Fund and cooperating states. The California condor which in mid 180s was down to 20 individuals, got resuscitated by the San Diego and Los Angeles Zoos and National Audubon Society in cooperation with states. The grizzly bear was put on the path to recovery by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee which made the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho full partners with the 4 federal agencies. Each of these recovery success stories owe their progress to non-federal participants in designing recovery efforts and to state leadership.

When ESA was written in 1973, and I worked in the office that drafted the bill, states were an afterthought and Section 6 was added to the bill to entice states into engagement. Today states are fully in harness and are a driving force in species recovery. This is a success story that should be celebrated for the achievement that it is and accelerated with additional funding and expanded engagements in all aspects of species listing and recovery.

The panelist who followed me was Jeff Morgheim, Founder and Principal of Edge Strategic Consulting, LLC. While Jeff’s presentation on conservation value units, “a common currency for conservation,” posed interesting questions, and solutions, for large-scale, multi-dimensional conservation efforts, it was the final presentation, by Leslie Allison, Executive Director of the Western Landowners Alliance, which really impressed me. Through her analysis and the display of quotes from western ranchers, Leslie did a great job communicating the anxieties, economic dislocation, and perseverance of the unspoken ones, the ranchers who live beyond the major media and TV outlets of Metro West and their twitting and facebooking millions.

The conservation of natural resources and its lifeblood – water – and all the species and biodiversity dependent on riparian areas in the west, is absolutely dependent on maintaining the livelihood of working farms and ranches. “As a rancher, I’ve learned that conservation and ranching are not mutually exclusive pursuits. In fact, to do either well you’d have to do them together,” Jeff Laszlo was quoted as saying.

These ranchers are voluntarily conserving wildlife habitat on a daily basis. This is especially true on the periphery of western metropolitan areas. Farms and ranches are being subdivided and developed around all western cities, think Bozeman, Denver, Boise, and Phoenix. These developments reduce existing habitats and put greater stresses on those that remain.

The complexity of increasing federal regulations whether for grazing or endangered species recovery is a nightmare for the working ranch community to navigate, and federal agency interactions need to be simplified and streamlined. As a rancher quoted in Leslie’s presentation said; “Protection for folks who are trying to do the right thing is essential. There are a few programs out there, but they are cumbersome and it’s not nearly enough.”