Imagine someone asked you to sign up for a race. The entry fee is $100. The grand prize is $10,000. But you don’t know how long the race is, other than it’s some distance between 1 and 100 miles. Would you run it? We wouldn’t. A similar problem exists when it comes to asking private landowners and businesses to voluntarily conserve species at risk of listing under the Endangered Species Act. Very rarely is it clear to anyone how much conservation is enough to avoid listing a species. Without knowing where’s the finish line, many people won’t invest their time and money in conservation.
One remedy is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with states to set targets for conserving at-risk species. With clear targets, the public will know how much work is needed to conserve a species and can then decide how much to contribute to that goal. If the goal isn’t met and the species is listed, that outcome won’t be a last-minute surprise announced through a listing decision. Instead, it will probably have been apparent many months earlier, reducing the controversy that can accompany a listing decision and allowing conservation partners to segue their pre-listing conservation efforts to post-listing recovery efforts.
Setting conservation targets for at-risk species—where’s the finish line?
One of the main objections we’ve heard to setting conservation targets for at-risk species is that listing decisions aren’t formulaic and that the amount of conservation needed to avoid listing differs by species. That much we agree with. We’re not proposing to lock the Service into a set of criteria that are immovable—in the same way that the agency isn’t bound by recovery criteria when deciding whether to delist a species. Rather, we propose that the agency set conservation targets that it will default to when deciding whether to list a species, absent new information that requires the agency to move the goalpost.
The greater sage-grouse offers one of the few examples where the Service did just that. There, the agency worked with states to form a Conservation Objectives Team, which developed conservation goals for the species, which then informed the decision not to list the species. The Service used a similar approach in its decision not to list the New England cottontail rabbit. The agency has proven that it can set conservation targets for at-risk species, but it doesn’t do so often.
The Service could normalize a process of working with states to develop conservation targets for at-risk species that the public has expressed interest in conserving. For most species, that process should be less time consuming than the ones for very wide-ranging species like the sage-grouse. One approach is for the Service to set conservation targets using ESA recovery criteria for similarly situated listed species. This approach is reasonable because the agency recently clarified that the standard for delisting a species as recovered is the same as that for listing a species (i.e., no longer meets the definition of a “threatened” or “endangered” species).
To illustrate, let’s take the example of Texas aquatic salamanders. Three species are currently awaiting 12-month listing decisions, including the Cascade Caverns salamander (Eurycea latitans). What might the conservation targets for these species look like? All three are Texas spring salamanders in the Eurycea genus, with small geographic distributions, facing the threat of groundwater deletion and contamination from urban development. These are the same circumstances facing the two listed Texas Eurycea salamanders with recovery plans: the Austin blind salamander (Eurycea waterlooensis) and the Barton Springs salamander (Eurycea sosorum). The 2019 revised recovery criteria for both of those species are almost identical and boil down to six elements, including:
• Protect the watershed where the species occurs to maintain water quality
• All extant populations of the species are healthy, self-sustaining, and stable
• Maintain captive assurance colonies as a contingency
If the Service were to list the three at-risk salamanders, we would expect their recovery criteria to closely resemble the ones above. And if this is true, then we already have an idea of the targets for conserving the three species. In other words, current recovery criteria can serve as precedent for the conservation targets of similarly situated species awaiting a listing decision.
This approaching of using recovery criteria as precedent may be even more supported when those criteria are based on a species status assessment. Those assessments evaluate a species’ viability using the conservation biology principles of resiliency, redundancy, and representation (3Rs). The recent recovery plan for the Gunnison sage-grouse, for example, sets population criteria for recovering the species based on the Service’s assessment of how much of the 3Rs are needed to maintain the species’ long-term viability. The same approach could inform conservation targets for similarly situated grouse species at risk of listing in the future.
Measuring progress toward conservation targets—how close am I to the finish line?
Setting conservation targets for at-risk species would be a great step. But the Service and states could take incentives one step further. To return to our race metaphor, the participants need to know not only that a race is 40 miles but also whether they’re at mile marker 25, 30, or 35. Similarly, the Service and states should provide metrics to track the amount of progress toward conservation targets for at-risk species. This information would provide a more objective benchmark for knowing whether a species is close to the point of avoiding listing—there’s a big difference between being at mile 20 and mile 35 when you have only 30 minutes to finish a 40-mile race.
Let’s say the species didn’t cross the finish line and listing is necessary. The information about how much conservation was completed can directly inform the species’ recovery progress. In this way, pre-listing conservation efforts can easily transition to post-listing recovery efforts.
Conservation progress can be tracked in any number of ways, depending on the species. For example, if a species has been evaluated for the 3Rs (a process that a state agency could lead for at-risk species), then improvements in the status of each of the 3Rs indicates progress. In fact, the Service participated in a recent effort to test this approach for listed species. If a species hasn’t been assessed in terms of the 3Rs, then the Service and states could rely on other methods to systematically track improvements in the species’ status based on population trends, legal protection status, outstanding management needs, and other indicators. An example comes from the eastern prairie-fringed orchid, for which the Service has developed a good method to assess the viability of every population.
Rewarding conservation progress even if listing is required—beyond the grand prize
Often, when people think about the reward for conserving at-risk species, their main focus is to avoid listing the species. But for some species, listing is inevitable because conservation efforts arrived too late. In these situations, certain landowners may give up on conserving the species. There’s a better alternative.
At the prelisting stage, the Service could describe how landowners will be rewarded—even if a species requires listing—based on the amount of conservation progress achieved prelisting. For example, if a landowner adequately conserves two populations of an at-risk species but the Service still needs to list the species because of inadequate conservation for other populations, the agency could reward that landowner by reducing ESA regulatory restrictions. These could come in the form of a section 4(d) rule that exempts routine land use practices or expedited and more flexible section 7 consultations.
The Service already provides these types of rewards in some situations, but it doesn’t do so systematically or in ways that are predictable to landowners before a listing decision. As a result, landowners have no guarantee that if they carry out voluntary conservation actions and achieve a predetermined conservation milestone for the species, they will be met with a predetermined reward if the species later becomes listed. If the Service were clearer about what rewards are appropriate when certain milestones are reached, the public would be more willing to invest in prelisting conservation.
We know of several industries that are interested in the incentives described here. If the Service and states wanted to work with those industries to expand prelisting conservation, we suggest a dialogue built on the following components.
• Identify several at-risk species for which participating industries and private landowners could contribute meaningfully to the species’ conservation. Any ESA listing decisions for those species should be far enough into the future to allow voluntary conservation measures to demonstrate significant progress.
• The Service, working with the relevant state wildlife agencies, jointly identify conservation targets for those species that, if met, should avoid listing. An important part of this step is to identify methods that allow the agencies to identify targets in a time- and cost-efficient manner. This step should also identify metrics to measure conservation progress for the species.
• The Service identifies ESA regulatory rewards that the agency will provide when significant milestones in the conservation of each species are met, if a species becomes listed despite prelisting conservation efforts.
More so than ever, the Service has partners willing to help conserve species. In this article, we describe a three-part strategy for tapping into that interest.