Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Conservation Incentives Do Work

July 29, 2008

Private landowners don’t have to help endangered species on their property, but conservationists hope they will want to. Several incentive programs encourage habitat protection on private lands in the U.S., and a new study suggests that they can work.

“These incentive programs are the most promising development in endangered species conservation in a decade,” says David Wilcove, who presents this work with Joon Lee in the June 2004 issue of Conservation Biology. Both researchers are at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Restoring habitat on private land is key to saving many endangered species. Habitat destruction is the biggest threat to federally listed endangered species, two-thirds of which live on private lands. Although private landowners are prohibited from harming protected species, they are not legally obligated to restore habitat on their land.

Wilcove and Lee studied three recent incentive programs aimed at restoring endangered species habitat on private lands in the U.S.: safe harbor agreements, which guarantee that landowners will not be penalized by future land use restrictions if the endangered species population grows; Environmental Defense’s Landowner Conservation Assistance Program, which helps cover costs and develops habitat restoration plans for landowners; and conservation banking, which lets landowners develop endangered species habitat in exchange for buying credits from others who conserve or restore habitat elsewhere. For each program, the researchers assessed how many landowners were participating, how much acreage was enrolled, and how many endangered species were targeted as of July 2002.

Since the safe harbor program began in 1995, participation increased steadily to 189 landowners, nearly 810,000 hectares, and 21 endangered species in July 2002. Although most of these agreements are too new to evaluate, several have already been successful. For example, thanks to a safe harbor agreement, the nene (Hawaiian goose, Nesochen sandvicensis) is once more breeding on Molokai after having been extinct there for more than 200 years.

The Landowner Conservation Assistance Program (LCAP) was established in 1999 in the Texas Hill Country to benefit two endangered songbirds, the golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia) and the black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapillus). In July 2002, 33 landowners had enrolled more than 24,000 hectares to help these birds. “ LCAP has proved remarkably popular in the Texas Hill Country, a region where hostility to federal regulations is legendary,” say the researchers. Interestingly, few participating landowners had also enrolled in safe harbor agreements, suggesting that most of them care more about technical help than regulatory relief.

Conservation banks have been operating since the early 1990s, and in July 2002 there were at least 47 banks (39 in California) with a total of 20,000 hectares and 37 threatened or endangered species. Nearly half of these conservation banks had sold credits.

The researchers caution that conservation incentive programs won’t help all endangered species — they are likely to work best for those with habitats that can be restored relatively easily, cheaply, and quickly. That said, “They do appear to be turning the tide for some of the nation’s rarest species,” says Wilcove.

—Robin Meadows

Wilcove, D. and J. Lee. 2004. Using economic and regulatory incentives to restore en-dangered species: Lessons learned from three new programs. Conservation Biology 18(3):639-645.

Nene (Hawaiian goose) (Nesochen sandvicensis) Photo by Peter LaTourrette

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