Cooperation, not Punishment, Key to Preserving Species

Brian Seasholes doesn’t think the Endangered Species Act does a very good job of protecting the at-risk species it was designed to preserve.

Seasholes, a research fellow at the Reason Foundation whose work focuses on wildlife and land-use issues, was the featured speaker at a recent CSG eCademy session, “Bringing a Collaborative Approach to the Endangered Species Act.” He said the act, which was passed in 1973, is a stronger law than most members of Congress realized at the time. If you harm an endangered species or even its unoccupied habitat, you can be subject to up to a $100,000 fine and up to one year in jail.

“I refer to the Endangered Species Act as a Teddy Roosevelt-style law, because the federal agencies speak softly, but carry a big stick,” Seasholes said. “It is this threat of punitive action that allows the federal agencies to oftentimes get people to negotiate. I would strongly suggest that it is not necessarily strictly voluntary, but reasonable people can differ on that.”

Seasholes said 62 percent of all endangered species have more than 80 percent of their habitat located on private land. Those that are located on private land are faring worse than endangered species on public lands. Seasholes said 1.5 endangered species are declining for each one improving on public lands. On private lands, nine species are declining for each one improving.

“Endangered species are doing a lot worse on private land,” he said. “I think that the primary reason for that is the penalties that are inherent in the Endangered Species Act. … I think that what the sort of logical outcome of this is that a lot of landowners don’t want endangered species on their land. … Landowners can take a lot of action, many of which are perfectly legal, to deny habitat to endangered species or to render habitat unsuitable.”

Seasholes said he believes a more cooperative approach with landowners and states would help improve the health of more endangered species and make the system less onerous for private landowners. Colorado and Texas have been at the forefront of this type of conservation efforts.

Texas established a new kind of conservation program in 2010, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed putting the dunes sagebrush lizard on the Endangered Species List. The small lizard is native to southeastern New Mexico as well as western Texas, which is one of the country’s most active oil and gas regions. The voluntary program limits the total acreage of land that can be disturbed, but participants also can earn credits for their efforts that can be used to offset habitat disturbances. Due to the state’s efforts, the dunes sagebrush lizard was not put on the endangered species list.

“This approach in Texas is called the Recovery Credit System,” Seasholes said. “It’s a very innovative approach. It’s kind of a low-cost, flexible approach that has had a significant benefit.”

Colorado’s efforts focus on the Gunnison sage grouse. Seasholes said about 85 to 90 percent of the bird’s habitat is in Gunnison County, Colo. For the past 20 years, he said, the state and county have gone to great lengths to stabilize and increase the bird’s population.

“They did everything that they thought they were supposed to do,” Seasholes said. “They hired what is thought to be the nation’s only municipal endangered species biologist. Gunnison County passed sage grouse specific ordinances. They worked on seasonal trail closures when the grouse were sensitive during breeding season. The state of Colorado spent in excess of $50 million on a bunch of conservation easements.”

Despite those efforts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Gunnison sage grouse as threatened last November.

“Colorado is now engaged in litigation against the Interior Department over the listing,” Seasholes said. “Despite all these efforts, and these efforts ultimately were successful, the fish and wildlife service went ahead and listed the sage grouse. This is extremely distressing to the state of Colorado, who had worked so hard on this, and the people of Gunnison County, who thought they were making good-faith efforts to conserve the sage grouse.”

Seasholes said a voluntary, rather than a punitive, approach that creates partnerships is needed in conservation efforts.

 “It’s very much sort of in keeping with this Texas-Colorado approach,” he said. “If we treated the conservation of endangered species or imperiled species as just a way to make deals with landowners to try to get them to work cooperatively, I think we could have a much more successful approach. I think we’d have better conservation outcomes.”