A return on investment perspective highlights the need for incentive-based conservation efforts

Conservation of many species listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is dependent upon private sector participation.  Niell and Boyd make the unremarkable, but frequently under-appreciated, point that most private sector parties weighing participation in conservation efforts will conduct some form of return-on-investment (ROI) analysis to evaluate the benefits of investing in conservation efforts relative to the attending costs.  This is a reality that was embraced by Department of the Interior and Fish and Wildlife Service leadership during the year with Bruce Babbitt as Secretary. Unsurprisingly, those years represent a high point for voluntary private-sector conservation efforts stimulated by the ESA.

Niell and Boyd explain that the core elements of conservation ROI analysis “include conservation’s direct and indirect costs, as well as the returns (benefits) from program participation.”  They define program participation expansively to encompass inter-agency consultation under section 7(a)(2) of the ESA, habitat conservation planning under section 10(a)(1)(B) of the ESA, safe harbor agreements, conservation banks, candidate conservation agreements, and the Working Lands for Wildlife program.

The ROI framework can be utilized by conservation advocates and the Fish and Wildlife Service to enhance participation by the regulated community in conservation efforts. Niell and Boyd explain that by reducing the costs of participating in conservation efforts and lowering the opportunity costs of participation, the Fish and Wildlife Service can increase incentives to participate. The authors highlight the potential for tailored rules that authorize take of threatened species under section 4(d) of the ESA to lower compliance costs and encourage conservation.

The value of engaging the regulated community in conservation efforts through the use of incentives is analogous to a wide array of market mechanisms employed in the pollution control context, including cap-and-trade agreements and deposit-refund policies. Surely the most significant obstacle to increased use of incentives to enhance conservation is adherence to a command-and-control regulatory mentality. In California, this disincentive has manifested as reluctance by regulators to utilize conservation planning tools at their disposal due to fear that the commitments being made by the regulated community will not suffice (and see PPIC’s 2019 report by Jeff Mount et al. A path forward for California’s ecosystems). The predictable consequence is reduced use of incentives to conservation action and, ultimately, a reduction in conservation efforts.  To the extent the wildlife agencies and other regulators recognize this fact and seek to use the full range of tools at their disposal to pursue cooperative conservation planning with the regulated community, they have the potential to make real strides in conservation planning and implementation.


Read the original article — Niell RE, Boyd J. 2020. Private-section conservation under the US Endangered Species Act: a return-on-investment perspective. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 18: 409-416.

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