TRAVERSE CITY, Michigan (AP) — The Biden administration plans to propose regulatory changes Wednesday to encourage voluntary conservation projects on private lands, in part by protecting landowners from retribution if their actions kill or harm a small number of endangered species.
The proposed rule from the US Fish and Wildlife Service outlines steps to streamline authorization for damages that would otherwise be illegal under the Endangered Species Act. The Associated Press obtained details on the proposal ahead of its public release.
To qualify, landowners take steps that would benefit declining species, including pollinators like bumblebees and monarch butterflies.
The idea is to make landowners allies rather than adversaries as climate change, urban sprawl and other trends put more animals and plants at risk. The United Nations says up to 1 million species could go extinct worldwide, many in the next few decades.
Preventing such losses will require protections on both private and public lands, officials told the AP.
“We strongly believe that collaborative conservation is the way forward,” US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in an interview. He added in a statement that the partnerships would “set us on a path to continued recovery and resilience.”
The proposed rule involves a section of federal law that offers exceptions to its broad prohibitions on harming species listed as endangered or threatened. It allows you to “take” – kill – individual plants or animals for scientific purposes or to preserve a species through steps such as creating new populations.
It also permits such damage if it is an unintentional result of an otherwise lawful activity such as logging, mining, and oil and gas development.
Killing or harming members of listed species in such circumstances requires a permit, accompanied by plans to limit the damage and conserve the species generally.
“These are valuable and popular tools, but they are largely limited by the fact that they are time-consuming and expensive to negotiate,” said Jonathan Wood, vice president of the Property and Environment Research Center, which advocates a free-market approach to environmentalism. .
The proposed new rule is designed to make it easier for such agreements to be reached and for more landowners to participate.
It would merge two existing types of protection agreements into one. It would also allow landowners to stop their protective measures, for example by cutting down trees they had allowed to grow for the benefit of forest species such as birds or bats.
Another provision would allow permits to be issued to harm individuals of species that have not been listed as endangered or threatened but may be in the future. The landowner would begin protective measures immediately, but could not injure or kill any of the animals or plants until their species were listed. This could help them recover well enough that they don’t need legal protections.
“We expect these improvements will encourage more individuals and businesses to engage in these voluntary programs, thereby driving greater conservation outcomes overall,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in a regulatory filing.
Environmental law experts have said the strategy is worth a try, but success is uncertain, particularly as it opens the door to more “accidental” deaths and offers landowners a chance to abandon conservation efforts.
“This is not a risk-free rule,” said Pat Parenteau, a law professor emeritus at the Vermont Law and Graduate School. “It may not work to the net benefit of the species in question.”
Most endangered species live largely on private land, so the government has no choice but to seek voluntary cooperation, accept compromises and assure owners they will be able to manage their property, said Dan Rohlf , professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon.
But an agreement that doesn’t require permanent conservation measures “sends a message to nonfederal landowners that conserving the species is ultimately not your obligation,” Rohlf said. “He Says that, hopefully, we’ll recover a species somewhere other than your land. And that may or may not be true or possible.”
Wildlife advocates have criticized the use of conservation agreements in cases such as the Arctic grayling, a fish struggling to survive in parts of Montana.
Supporters sued the government last week, arguing that a deal reached more than a decade ago involving the Big Hole River and its tributaries – home to grayling and a source of water for agriculture – had failed to stop the decline of fish.
The settlement was not enforceable and did not go through a public trial for experts to intervene, said Kristine Akland, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The concept is great: state and private entities and the federal government come together and agree to comply with certain measures to help a species,” Akland said. “Every… conservation agreement will be subject to these pitfalls.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has scheduled a public comment period from February 9 to April 10. No date has been set for a final decision on the proposed rule.
The service requested feedback on issues such as whether the proposed changes would save time and money; how they would affect conservation; how much private land might be eligible; and the potential for more permit applications.
“The upcoming rule is important to get non-federal landowners on board, to bring working landscapes into this partnership to really embrace the Endangered Species Act,” Martha Williams, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the AP.
Brown reported from Billings, Montana.
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