Protecting wildlife with the right incentives

How EDF brokered peace between landowners and endangered species

Environmental Defense wildlife specialist David Wolfe and rancher Bob Long

Rancher Bob Long and EDF wildlife specialist David Wolfe inspect restored habitat in Texas.


“Every year we’d go out and listen for the birds: nothing. Then, suddenly, birdsong was everywhere.” That’s how EDF ecologist David Wolfe described his thrilling encounter with endangered black-capped vireos on Kerry Russell’s ranch in central Texas.

Working with us, Russell successfully restored habitat for the tiny songbird on his ranch, which sits just beyond the reach of Austin’s sprawl. He participates in Safe Harbor, an EDF brainchild. Under Safe Harbor, landowners like Russell received incentives from the government to protect rare species on their land, while avoiding new government restrictions on how they use their land.

4 million acres 

Before Safe Harbor, landowners sometimes destroyed valuable habitat for wildlife so they could avoid federal regulations. Today, the owners of some four million acres nationwide are welcoming 63 rare species under Safe Harbor agreements.

Groups ranging from The Nature Conservancy to the City of Tempe Arizona have used it as a prime tool to save endangered species and it is now commonly used by state and federal fish and wildlife departments as a prime way of protecting vanishing habitat. “We’ve learned we can be more effective by being flexible and listening to landowner concerns,” says Wolfe.

In Texas, ranchers have enrolled 6,000 acres of vanishing habitat in Safe Harbor and their efforts are paying off: Vireos and golden cheeked warblers are nesting in restored habitat from which they’ve been absent for decades, and other species are rebounding elsewhere around the country.

“Safe Harbor is a breath of fresh air – the first concerted effort to work with landowners by a national organization I’ve seen,” says Russell.

Through unusual partnerships like these, we broaden the range of people working to save the environment. We partner with communities who depend on a healthy environment: Farmers, ranchers and forest owners.

“Farmers and ranchers manage more than half the land in America and they deserve help when they want to do the right thing,” notes Wolfe. “Through incentives, we’ve made conservation pay for landowners.”