Private Lands for Endangered Species Recovery

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:11/01/2013 Updated:12/04/2013

We have a truly significant decline - the largest in my lifetime - of both federal and state funding for traditional conservation programs. And this administration has pushed for 5 years for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which is obviously not going to happen in our current and projected fiscal environment.

As Bob Dylan once wrote, "the time they are a-changin'," and I am certain private landowners hold the key to this country's conservation equation. Public acquisition funding will soon be a thing of the past.

Let us look at just one of the battles outside that is raging: the fight over whether or not to list the lesser prairie chicken (LPC) as a threatened species. This little grouse is the latest wildlife critter elevated to iconic status by environmental groups proposing to put it on the Endangered Species List. The chicken's habitat comprises parts of 5 states: Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, and it is 95% habitat dependent on private farm and ranch lands. It also happens to overlay some of the richest oil and gas deposits in the U.S.

In response to this potential threatened species listing, the fish and game agencies of these 5 states have put together a LPC recovery program, the Western Association of Fish & Game Agencies' (WAFWA) Range-Wide plan. It is probably better than anything produced by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over the past 40 years in terms of comprehensiveness and multi-sector outreach and coordination. The scale of outreach here is unprecedented, and the prospect of scaling the LPC conservation activities over 5 states is a daunting challenge, as will be the complicated efforts with the oil, gas and wind industries to enlist their cooperation and investment in LPC conservation.

Why does it make sense to keep the LPC off of the Endangered Species List?

In the first instance, because the recovery of listed species has a deplorable record of success; ESA has a 1% success rate. Only 58 of the 2,794 species ever listed have been delisted (and 10 of those were delisted due to extinction).

Second, I believe in both the primacy and the efficacy of state management of wildlife, and particularly in the Western and Midwestern states where the primary LPC habitat is on farm and ranch lands; where landowners really do not cotton to someone from Washington, or the federal government telling them how to manage their land.

Third, from a social, economic and national security point of view, I think it is important to keep our oil and gas industry productive.

Finally, I think private landowners will be better stewards of LPC habitat than any public agency. I think the importance of private landowners to endangered species has been completely missed by the environmental community.

Why do I believe private landowners will be the 21st century's guardians of endangered species? Simply put: they host the majority of the habitat and sources of water, particularly in the western states.

Let me emphasize again, 95% of LPC habitat is on private lands. There are some 250 other species in the pipeline for endangered species listing, many of them, like the LPC's conspecific neighbors the sage grouse and Gunnison sage grouse are largely dependent upon private lands.

This is, ironically, particularly true in the western states even though most of their lands, often 60% or more, are owned by the federal government. This is because private landowners control the water rights and stream beds. Federal land is mostly over 3,000 feet altitude and is largely rock, ice, pine forests and high altitude deserts with low biodiversity quotients, as demonstrated by Michael Scott's GIS-GAP analysis of Idaho.

These private lands hold most of the riparian areas which harbor biodiversity. These private lands also provide the water that supplies our metro areas, irrigation for agriculture, and the corridors for energy infrastructure build-out.

Approximately 1/3 of species listed as endangered or threatened may be found only on private lands (ABA-ALI ESA Conference 2009).

It is time for coalition building in rural America. In other speeches, I have talked about the metropolitan bias that currently drives policy across rural America. Urban and suburban America now dictates the laws of Congress and federal agencies. A metropolitan constituency that does not know how to cut a tree has made our forests sacrosanct and views grazing cattle with skepticism once reserved for locusts.

Farmers, ranchers, forest owners and the oil and gas industry need to make common cause to help preserve each of their respective independences and economic sustainability. In today's world, each of these constituencies is fractured into multiple silos, which leads to ineffectiveness.

The oil and gas industry in particular needs to position itself as an integral community player supporting the vitality of sustainable farm, ranch and forest communities. In the world we live in today, the social/political milieu is as important as innovation in engineering and technology.

We need to upgrade our conservation skills to design methods of extracting cooperation from private landowners to meet the challenge of endangered species listings and other environmental challenges, such as the loss of Louisiana's wetlands.

As of today, nobody has designed a comprehensive, nationwide approach for engaging private landowners in stewardship for the recovery of endangered species. RFF is designing an internet platform for aggressive private land stewardship implementation, not only for the LPC, but also for species that may be listed in the future.

This article has been edited and condensed. For the full presentation, go to our PLN Library here.


re: Private Lands for Endangered Species Recovery
By: Lindsay Webb on: 12/04/2013

Amos - You make a very interesting point about engaging private landowners in the recovery of endangered species. I think catching the recovery of a species before it is deemed "endangered" (on a list) is the key to this collaboration. Many landowners fear an endangered species on their property due to the potential management restrictions (development or otherwise) and I think some may not be willing to participate if they knew this. However, others might relish in the idea of helping a rare species. In any case, it is something that needs to be done, and not just in the west, but throughout the United States.