Efforts to conserve America’s wildlife took a step forward this week when Secretary of The Interior David Bernhardt announced significant changes to regulations implementing the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The changes are expected to increase the incentives private landowners have to actively recover species on their property and had long been supported in concept by career staff in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The new rules should help improve the track record of a law that has excelled at preventing species from going extinct but often fallen short of its promise to recover healthy populations of fish and wildlife in danger of disappearing.
This partnership has not always been an easy one. When a species is listed as threatened or endangered, the listing can come with the increased federal regulation of land uses, such as ranching, farming and forestry. Until this week those regulations, which range from increased consultation and permitting requirements to outright prohibition of land use, applied equally to a landowner whether a species was listed as threatened or endangered. This has made the presence of ESA-listed species a financial liability for landowners. It also has given those closest to the land little incentive to work to increase populations of endangered species so they can be moved into the threatened category and placed solidly on the path to recovery.
The regulatory improvements announced this week change this dynamic by keeping longstanding regulations applying to the most at-risk endangered species while giving the USFWS increased flexibility and reducing the regulatory impact associated with the presence of less imperiled species that are listed as threatened. The promise of regulatory relief following increases in species’ populations gives landowners a reason to actively manage their lands to promote the recovery of endangered species.
The Trump administration improves the implementing regulations of the Endangered Species Act so that private land owners have a vested interest in species and habitat recovery.
“The mark of any good environmental law is the positive, measurable outcomes it yields on the ground,” said Brian Yablonski, executive director of the Property and Environment Research Center and a past chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. “With these improvements to the Endangered Species Act, the road to recovery for many imperiled species starts today.”
Providing incentives that deepen the involvement of private landowners and businesses in conservation is an idea around which there is a growing global consensus and broadly has been embraced by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other groups. This puts the new ESA rules adopted by the Department of the Interior (DOI) within the mainstream of the conservation movement, despite what critics of the changes may say.
About the Author: Catherine E. Semcer is a research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) where her work focuses on free-market- and property-rights-based solutions to policy challenges in environmental security, conservation finance and sustainability. She is past chief operating officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.), a boutique non-government delivering training, advisory, assistance and procurement services to African counter-poaching programs. During her tenure with H.O.P.E. she was directly responsible for leading the opening of projects in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Ethiopia.
Any opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of institutions with which she is affiliated.
Catherine’s research and commentary has appeared in NRA’s Hunter Leadership Forum, the International Journal of Environmental Studies, The Hill and other publications. She has also been a guest on programs including Intelligence Squared US and EconTalk, where she has debated and discussed the political economy of African wildlife conservation.
Catherine serves as a research fellow with the African Wildlife Economy Institute at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She is a member of the Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Protected Areas Finance Working Group of the Conservation Finance Alliance. Catherine is a contributing editor to Conservation Frontlines and a past field editor of African Indaba, the official African publication of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC.)
Catherine is a graduate of Muhlenberg College. In her spare time she enjoys upland bird and waterfowl hunting, trekking, fly fishing and sailing.