By the year 2020, our planet could lose a fifth or more of its plant and animal species, an extinction rate 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural pace. In the United States, 16% of mammals, 14% of birds, and an alarming 37% of freshwater fishes are extinct, imperiled or vulnerable. Each of these species is a unique experiment never to be repeated. In effect, we are throwing away the science books before they can be written. The overwhelming cause is loss of habitat.
The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) conserves species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. For a quarter century, the ESA has served as the safety net between peril and extinction for the thousands of species that have been listed for protection. However, the ESA has not kept pace with the biodiversity crisis. Less than a tenth of all listed species are actually improving in status, while nearly four times that number are declining.
NHI has judiciously invoked federal and state ESA laws to secure protection of imperiled aquatic species in the San Francisco Bay -Delta and Central Valley tributaries. NHI is negotiating a species protection program that will constrain exports of water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary but will also provide those export water users a badly-needed measure of regulatory stability. NHI has also represented environmental interests in defending the federal ESA from litigation that sought to limit its application to reduce water diversions that jeopardize the survival of aquatic species.
Conflicts between private property rights and the public interest in preserving biodiversity are posed to become an increasingly daunting challenge for conservationists. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, half of all federally listed species do not occur on federal lands, and more than half of listed species have at least 80% of their habitat on nonfederal lands. For those species whose habitat is mainly or exclusively on private lands, intact ecosystems are increasingly rare. In NHI’s analysis of fifteen years of Habitat Conservation Planning (HCP) performance, we found substantial opportunities to restructure the HCP process to improve the prospects for successful outcomes for imperiled species and nonfederal property rights holders. In sum, these reforms would entail:
Shaping individual HCPs to contribute to a landscape-scale, bioregional conservation strategy;
Aiming bioregional conservation strategies at species recovery;
Reserving the decision on participation in the HCP negotiations for the Services rather than the permit applicants; and
Incorporating adaptive management routinely in HCPs.
For more information, please see NHI’s publication Where Property Rights and Biodiversity Converge: Lessons from Experience in Habitat Conservation Planning.