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Should Landowners Earn Biodiversity Offsets For Conserving Species Habitat Before It Becomes Endangered?

Kelli Barrett

A new draft policy issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service grants credits to all types of landowners for practicing conservation for wildlife not yet listed under the ESA. The credits generated can be redeemed only after the species becomes listed, which is already leading certain parties to question the effectiveness of the conservation being practiced.

 

19 August 2014 | It usually costs less to prevent a disease than it does to treat one, and it also costs less to manage forests in a way that prevents high-intensity wildfires than it does to fight those fires after they erupt.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is following this same line of thought into conservation by proposing a policy on building a crediting system that would protect threatened wildlife. The draft policy, which is part of the Service’s Candidate Conservation program, seeks to incentivize landowners into early conservation.

“The adage ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ is appropriate here,” says the FWS’ Chief of Public Affairs, Gavin Shire. “This policy is one more tool that can be used in conjunction with the others to help prevent species decline.”

How it works

Under the proposal, any landowning entity individuals, companies, government agencies, etc. can earn credits by practicing conservation that benefits an unlisted species. The conservation includes larger actions such as habitat creation and restoration, but also includes actions like planting trees, forgoing timber harvest, and removing invasive species. If the animal that benefits from those actions is later listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), those credits can be redeemed and used as mitigation to avoid practicing further conservation for the species.

The credits generated can also be sold to a third party-another entity requiring conservation actions for a listed species.

For example, a landowner, under no legal obligation, plants trees that provide a nesting habitat for a warbler species. The conservation actions are assessed, and the landowner receives credits based on its benefit to the warbler. If that species becomes an endangered or threatened species under the ESA in the future, and the landowner would like to develop an area of warbler habitat, he/she can redeem the credits and practice those actions without additional conservation. However, the value of the conservation must be greater than the negative activity being offset. If this isn’t the case, then additional conservation would need to be carried out. A requirement of the policy is delivering a net conservation benefit to the species.

Other requirements are fairly evident. First, it must be voluntary. The entity can’t be under any legal obligation to carry out the conservation. And the conservation must benefit unlisted wildlife.

Any at-risk species qualifies under the proposal. But because credits can only be redeemed after a species is listed under the ESA, it’s most likely landowners will conserve candidate species, which are those already under review to receive an official ESA listing. The risk of them being listed is higher.

Cost-effective Approach?

The FWS doesn’t have the exact numbers on how much more cost-effective it is to conserve a species voluntarily, but Shire says it’s only a question of how much and not if.

“Bringing a species back from the brink of extinction is always going to cost more than conserving populations before they get to that desperate status,” he says.

Ultimately, healthier ecosystems for wildlife mean a more sustainable flow of ecosystem services for people. And restoring ecosystems for people is expensive, Shire says, so everyone benefits from proactive conservation actions.

But while early conservation isn’t disputed as a sure way to preserve a species, Wayne White of the National Mitigation Banking Association, an organization meant to influence policy on behalf of the mitigation and conservation banking industry, is skeptical of voluntary measures.

For one, White questions the rigor of voluntary conservation standards and if those actions can act as offsets for detrimental impacts. The concept is designed to prevent species listing but, because it’s voluntary, the conservation is at a lower standard and then less likely to enhance the animals’ numbers, White says. A well-known example is the lesser prairie chicken, whose population continued to decline despite voluntary actions. The bird was listed as threatened under the ESA this year.

Then there is the cost of voluntary conservation. And again, because the standards are lower, White says, the cost is lower. Voluntary actions don’t have to ensure long-term preservation for a species and therefore can appear less expensive than conservation banking, which conserves at a high level and manages land for wildlife conservation in perpetuity. White argues this draft policy will undermine private sector investment in conservation banks.

“What we’re not seeing is the true cost of mitigation,” White says. “There is no certainty the voluntary conservation actions are going to be there long-term.”

Administration

White’s take on the draft policy is most likely one of many that will be streaming in over the next month. The proposal is published in the Federal Register and open to public comments until September 22.

As for administration, that will fall to individual states should they decide to adopt the policy. The FWS’ role is largely one of assistance and overseer. The states will take on primary tracking and implementation responsibilities and then report this information to the Service annually. This way, the states can ensure their conservation efforts will be recognized by the FWS should the species be listed eventually.

The FWS is also clear on how the draft policy would operate in coordination with the agency’s other ongoing voluntary initiatives. While some prelisting conservation measures may qualify under different programs, it can’t be treated under more than one. The intended outcomes of these different initiatives are different, the document notes. Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAAs), for instance, are meant to represent a property owners’ entire obligation to conserving a species. The draft policy, on the other hand, is allowing a conservation action to act as mitigation. It doesn’t guarantee further conservation won’t be needed.

CCAAS are also only for non-federal landowners whereas the draft policy is for every type of property owner.

Kelli Barrett is a freelance writer and editorial assistant at Ecosystem Marketplace. She can be reached at kbarrett@ecosystemmarketplace.com.

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