A strategy to help private landowners save the declining monarch butterfly is a model for how to prevent other plants and animals, including the greater sage-grouse, from needing Endangered Species Act protection, advocates and state and federal officials say.
Under a plan announced last week, private landowners and 45 energy and transportation companies are providing habitat for the monarch butterfly under a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agreement allows the landowners to voluntarily conserve habitat without ever having to undertake any additional conservation measures that would be required if the butterfly is listed as an endangered or threatened species. Some private landowners and conservation groups support the agreements because they aim to prevent government mandates that could affect development, while also helping to protect habitat.
Fifty-one other such agreements have been struck nationwide since 2000. They create voluntary public-private partnerships that help protect dozens of declining species, including the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, Gunnison sage-grouse, and the greater sage-grouse.
The agreement for the monarch is the only one to conserve a single species that covers the entire country.
“It’s designed to encourage landowners or land managers to conserve species that are at risk for extinction or listing under the Endangered Species Act,” with the goal of avoiding listing altogether, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Georgia Parham.
The monarch butterfly is especially precarious. Climate change and pesticide use have caused dramatic declines in the butterfly’s population nationwide, especially in the West.
More than 10 million monarchs were counted in California in the 1980s, but only about 300,000 are found there today, according to research from Washington State University, Vancouver.
“By engaging early in voluntary conservation, utilities and departments of transportation can avoid increased costs and operational delays as a result of a potential listing,” Iris Caldwell, program manager at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, which will administer the agreement, said in a statement.
Protection Before Mandates
The agreements, known as “candidate conservation agreements with assurances,” or CCAAs, are useful to help protect the monarch and other species because they encourage measures to protect habitat before such efforts are mandated under the Endangered Species Act, conservationists say.
“CCAAs not only deliver their face value as safe harbors for candidate species; when managed with the finesse required, they create friends for grouse and any other species engaged,” said Brian Rutledge, vice president of the National Audubon Society.
Such conservation agreements have been used across the West to help protect millions of acres of greater sage-grouse habitat. States and the federal government have been developing plans to keep the greater sage-grouse off the Endangered Species List because protecting the chicken-sized bird could get in the way of energy development in sagebrush ecosystems, where oil and gas are plentiful.
“When the bird was looking at being listed, we were in full brainstorming mode of every single way we could come up with of preserving that habitat,” including using CCAAs, said Rebekah Fitzgerald, communications director for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Many oil and gas companies participate in such conservation agreements across the West, said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents small energy producers.
“CCAAs can be an effective tool for protecting habitat while providing regulatory certainty for producers. CCAAs encourage voluntary conservation, and when they’re working well, can take the place of a species listing,” she said. “We support their expanded use and other voluntary measures to protect species.”
But the agreements have limitations. Fitzgerald said the number of private landowners interested in striking the agreements fell off in Wyoming after the Fish and Wildlife Service decided not to protect the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act.
Wyoming officials don’t know for sure why landowners lost interest. But Fitzgerald said they have been more interested in working directly with energy companies to minimize sage-grouse habitat disturbance, rather than striking an agreement with the federal government.
Some groups worry the candidate conservation agreement for the monarch won’t be sufficient.
“Monarchs have lost an estimated 165 million acres of milkweed and nectar habitat in the U.S. and desperately need habitat protection to bolster their numbers,” said Tara Cornelisse, a scientist and entomologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
“While this agreement is a step in the right direction, conservation measures need to be implemented on a wider scale than it requires,” she said. “There should be proper follow through to ensure monarchs don’t become roadkill or are continually sprayed by herbicides.”
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