The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has requested public comment on potential new incentives to encourage landowners to voluntarily protect at-risk plant and animal species. This project is the result of a regulatory review ordered by President Obama. After evaluating its current rules governing voluntary conservation programs, FWS concluded that these rules are inconsistent, create cumbersome legal processes and do not provide sufficient incentives for landowners to participate in voluntary habitat conservation. FWS is therefore requesting public input on how to improve the rules governing these conservation programs.
If effectively designed and implemented, voluntary habitat conservation programs can generate benefits for both the environment and for landowners. These programs aim to protect the habitat of vulnerable plant and animal species before the species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Once a species is listed under the ESA, its habitat becomes legally protected, which can impose complex and expensive regulatory requirements on landowners. Voluntary habitat conservation can therefore not only help prevent species decline, but can also help landowners avoid regulatory costs associated with ESA listing. If properly structured, conservation agreements can also make it more profitable for a landowner to engage in activities that conserve or restore habitat rather than activities that diminish habitat.
One of the key problems with FWS’s current rules is that they do not effectively protect landowners from regulatory costs if landowners succeed in increasing the local population of a vulnerable species but the species nevertheless declines overall and becomes listed under the ESA. For example, FWS recently declared the sage grouse to be a candidate for ESA listing, but declined for now to list the sage grouse as threatened or endangered. The sage grouse’s range extends across the Pacific Northwest and the FWS estimates that up to 30% of the sage grouse’s habitat has a high potential for wind power development. Under current FWS rules, wind developers and farmers leasing land for wind facilities may be reluctant to participate in voluntary habitat conservation for fear that increasing local sage grouse populations will restrict wind projects if and when FWS moves forward with an ESA listing of the sage grouse. Improved voluntary conservation rules would remove this risk, which would encourage both renewable energy development and conservation of sage grouse habitat.
The FWS’s request for public input also asks whether habitat conservation credits should be available solely to landowners whose actions create the credits, or whether the credits should be transferrable to third parties. The structure of conservation credits has important implications for the development of markets that effectively encourage actions that benefit the environment. These ecosystem service markets have great potential to solve environmental problems without heavy handed regulation.