The ESA at 50: Six steps to better outcomes for people and wildlife

Were it not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it is likely that bald eagles, humpback whales, whooping cranes, peregrine falcons and American alligators would no longer be with us today. Yet on its 50th anniversary, the ESA has a become a lightning rod for conflict and litigation, generating intense political debate over its effectiveness and its future. While it has fostered the recovery of several dozen species, 1,686 species in the United States remain listed as threatened or endangered, with many more in the pipeline for listing.

Here are six strategies that can reduce conflicts and improve outcomes for wildlife and for people:

1. Take a “Conservation without Conflict” approach.

Conservation without Conflict is a both a formal coalition (see box) and a growing paradigm shift away from a strictly regulatory approach toward voluntary, collaborative wildlife conservation on working lands. The movement was born out of necessity as the U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service and diverse partners and stakeholders struggled to address the rapidly increasing number of wildlife species under consideration for federal listing. The results have been powerful, accelerating conservation and recovery on the ground for dozens of species while keeping working lands working.

Conservation without Conflict principles include:

  • Voluntary and collaborative
  • Building enduring trust
  • Diverse and inclusive
  • Embracing science and innovation
  • Increasing predictability and economic viability
  • Sustainable and scaled
  • Capitalizing on the flexibility of the ESA

Conservation without conflict is a partnership-based strategy that helped keep valuable production timberlands in the Southeast working while protecting and recovering the endangered gopher tortoise. While still federally endangered, the tortoise has rebounded in areas where agriculture and forestry are conserved. The biggest threat to gopher tortoises today is conversion of suitable working land habitat into development.

2. Shift the focus (from listing/delisting) to cooperative recovery.

Litigation battles over listing and delisting of species consume enormous amounts of money and human capacity that could otherwise be used to support conservation and recovery on the ground. A University of Wyoming workshop and report (see box) highlighted that reimagining the state-federal partnership in the implementation of the ESA is a first step toward better outcomes. 

3. Provide better access to regulatory assurances.

Landowners are far less likely to participate in conserving and recovering wildlife if it results in additional regulatory burdens and associated costs. Regulatory assurance agreements such as Safe Harbor Agreements (SHAs) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs) were designed to address this concern. However, these agreements are difficult for most landowners to access. Providing a dedicated source of funding and clear guidance for the development and administration of these agreements by states and third-party organizations is a cost-effective way to remove a disincentive that has plagued the ESA since inception. 

4. Implement the Four C’s framework to reducing conflicts with wildlife.

Landowners often bear a disproportionate cost when it comes to the conservation and recovery of wildlife, and particularly large carnivores such as wolves and grizzlies. The Four C’s—compensation, conflict prevention, control (lethal) and collaboration—make up a systems-based conflict reduction framework that supports conservation and provides opportunities to address the social, ecological and economic situations unique to each context. This framework (see box) allows the social and financial burden associated with ecological conflicts within shared landscapes to be balanced.

5. Expand habitat leasing models.

A habitat lease provides annual payments on a per-acre basis to compensate landowners for the costs of providing essential habitat and other conservation values of public benefit. Several habitat leasing models have been developed using a variety of federal, state, county and private funding. Habitat leasing is a simple and holistic form of payment for ecosystem services that promotes agricultural productivity, climate health and biodiversity while maximizing direct economic benefits to producers. 

6. Invest in place-based collaborative conservation.

Some of the most creative and effective solutions to conservation challenges have emerged from place-based collaborative partnerships. Examples include the Blackfoot Challenge, Malpai Borderlands Group, Chama Peak Land Alliance, Big Hole Watershed Committee and many others. Locally driven, community-supported solutions are well informed, adapted to specific landscape needs and often more enduring than those imposed from afar by governments or outside organizations. However, public and philanthropic investment in these types of rural initiatives and organizations is limited, and many groups struggle to find the financial resources they need to operate. Investing in locally driven, collaborative conservation is an inclusive and cost-effective way to improve long-term outcomes for people and wildlife. 

Take a deeper look

Lesli is a founding member and the chief executive of the Western Landowners Alliance. She was also a founding member of the Chama Peak Land Alliance. For the past three decades, Lesli has worked extensively with private landowners and multiple stakeholders to advance conservation, sustain working lands and support rural communities.