Measuring Effectiveness

Dunes sagebrush lizard. USFWS

Do conservation plans under the Endangered Species Act work?  Does a novel conservation technique lead to more critters on the ground?  Do participants follow avoidance and minimization requirements?

We can sometimes answer these questions without a lot of time and money.  Here is one clever example published today by two of my former coworkers.  Using electronic oil and gas permitting records from Texas and New Mexico, the authors compared the number of oil and gas permits approved within areas enrolled in a conservation plan to the number of permits elsewhere.  The study focuses on the imperiled dunes sagebrush lizard, because there have been many questions about whether voluntary conservation plans can effectively conserve the species.

The result?  The New Mexico conservation plan benefitted the lizard, as areas enrolled in the plan had far fewer oil and gas drilling permits than non-enrolled areas.  By contrast, the Texas plan saw no difference between the number of drilling permits in enrolled and non-enrolled areas.

Why the difference?  The main reason is that the Texas plan has no requirements to avoid certain habitats, leaving it up to individual oil and gas companies to decide whether they want to avoid any areas.  By contrast, the New Mexico plan makes avoiding important habitat mandatory.

Nongovernmental organizations can play a major role in helping state and federal agencies evaluate the performance of plans like these.  The key is to make permitting and other administrative records easily accessible online, so that they can be analyzed using data science tools and GIS.  If that were to happen broadly, we would see major progress toward understanding what works for wildlife and what doesn’t.

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