Laws alone do not save wildlife. The Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of the most effective environmental policies written in the past century, has pulled dozens of species back from the brink of extinction and holds out a lifeline for many others.
But in recent years, the ESA’s effectiveness has stalled. Opposition has grown to listing new species in the face of strict, sometimes costly rules that affect landowners whose property is also the habitat of imperiled wildlife. At least 250 candidate species await decisions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to be protected under the ESA, and final decisions are taking years, if not longer, to arrive. Landowners who have very little financial incentive to protect wildlife under the ESA sometimes practice something called "shoot, shovel, and shut up" after discovering endangered species on their property.
The World Resources Institute (WRI), and its partners, hope their "candidate conservation marketplace" will remove some of this opposition, and make it less costly to conserve species. They have started testing a marketplace to buy and sell habitat credits, which will allow developers and landowners to exchange land in different locations to help wildlife conservation.
The first trial is focused on gopher tortoise habitat, mostly longleaf pine, in the southeastern U.S., a region where 87% of forests are privately owned. Developers can offset impact on gopher tortoise habitat by buying credits reflecting the cost of managing and monitoring tortoise habitat in perpetuity, as well as a negotiated profit for the seller. The money goes to those private landowners who own the land where the tortoise resides. In principle, writes Todd Gartner, a senior associate with WRI who is leading the program, developers "mange their environmental risk by investing in conservation on private lands in return for regulatory certainty from the [Fish and Wildlife Service]."
Whether a market mechanism will convince private landowners to embrace saving species as a source of profit, rather than looking at them as just anther expense, still needs to be tested. The marketplace managers will also have to show habitat is being conserved that would not be otherwise, or the environmental benefits will prove ephemeral over the long term.
The first transactions are due to take place later this year, so species such as lesser prairie chickens and the greater sage grouse may be next in line for similar programs. And there is unlikely to be a shortage of potential candidates anytime soon: Petitions to consider at least 600 more species under the ESA will be decided in the coming years.