What Can Congress Learn from Teddy Bear and Peter Rabbit?

By Eric Holst, Environmental Defense Fund, Opinion Contributor for The Hill

This week, several Senate Republicans initiated efforts to reform the Endangered Species Act in ways that would roll back critical protections for wildlife, putting countless plants and animals at greater risk of extinction. It’s one of many anticipated actions to review the law, a number of which are likely to propose weakening the Act in order to streamline development and reduce regulatory burdens on private landowners.

Conservation professional and private landowner

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ted Kendziora, left, explains habitat management options to landowner Tom McAvoy of Scotland, Connecticut. McAvoy has carried out a project to create habitat for New England cottontails on his farm./C. Fergus

In particular, the "Endangered Species Management Self-Determination Act" (S. 935) would require the consent of governors before making management decisions for species within their states. It would also require congressional approval of the endangered and threatened species lists and automatically remove plants or animals after five years.

While the role of states, the delisting process and the regulatory burdens on landowners are three clear areas for improving implementation of the ESA, these particular recommendations put the core goal of the Act – to conserve species based on the best available science – in danger. Fortunately, we can look to several ESA success stories to draw inspiration for other improvements.

The recent cooperative conservation effort for the greater sage grouse showed how the states can play a major role in pre-list planning, as western governors committed to conservation solutions that precluded the need to list the bird. By focusing efforts on conservation before the listing, the states were able to provide substantial financial assistance for landowners to participate in state-based, stakeholder-led conservation programs. The sage grouse became an opportunity for landowners to earn revenue, rather than a liability, and the states effectively avoided a listing.

New England cottontail in habitat

Habitat that private landowners are making for New England cottontails is key to keeping New England's native rabbit off the Endangered Species list./K. Boland

The delisting of the Louisiana black bear and the averted listing of the New England cottontail – the inspiration behind Teddy Bear and Peter Rabbit – show how the Act can be implemented to effectively recover and remove animals from the endangered and candidate species lists. Once these species were added to the respective lists, there was broad interest and focus on recovery. With clear, science-based recovery goals, stakeholders were able to manage habitat effectively and know when recovery goals had been met.

A common thread among all ESA success stories is that private landowners are the conservation heroes. The more that we can create and expand incentives – both economic and regulatory – for private landowners to protect species, the better. They know how to manage their land for wildlife, they just need the right tools and incentives.

At the end of the day, the mountains, rivers, forests and prairies that provide essential habitat for wildlife are the same vital natural resources that sustain prosperous communities. It’s in all of our best interest to strike a balance between human needs for food, fuel and fiber, and nature’s needs. We cannot have one without the other, so we must be sure to get it right.

Eric Holst is an associate vice president of working lands at Environmental Defense Fund. Read this opinion piece online.