Why we need a new way to protect wildlife

The Endangered Species Act works best when combined with economic incentives

Monarch butterfly

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting a status review of the monarch butterfly to determine whether an ESA listing is warranted.

Credit: U.S. FWS/Flickr

The ESA is vital, but it operates more like an emergency room, not preventive care. By that point, species are already on life support—and the price tag is high.

Eric Holst Associate Vice President, Working Lands

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was created in 1973 to save America’s most vulnerable wildlife. However, the way it works today isn’t enough to protect our wildlife going forward.

What’s at stake? More than 250 species await listing decisions under the ESA. This number will only increase with the pressures of climate change and industrial development.

Why it’s not working: By the time a species is listed, it’s already reached crisis stage. The necessary fixes are often costly and burdensome. The result: Drawn-out legal battles that delay recovery.

Looming conflict over monarch butterfly

The monarch butterfly exemplifies this dilemma. In recent years, the population has dropped to about 50 million from more than one billion butterflies less than 20 years ago. Habitat loss, pesticides and climate change are largely to blame.

Ideally, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides what level of protection is necessary, they look to the story of the greater sage-grouse for inspiration. In September 2015, regulators decided an endangered listing was not warranted.

Greater sage-grouse decision signals new way

Greater Sage Grouse

The habitat of the greater sage-grouse has dwindled, largely due to oil and gas development and climate change.

Credit: Steven Nehl

The reason? FWS cited major investments made in private working lands and strong commitments by ranchers to steward their lands for the sage-grouse. EDF worked with many unlikely allies, including ranchers and oil companies, to make this happen.

“The not-warranted decision sends a message that early action and collaborative efforts bring results,” says Holst. “And it made all of us see that it’s possible to avoid the conflicts that have characterized the endangered species debates for so long.”

A better way: Create incentives to conserve

Our decades of experience show that positive results happen when landowners are given incentives to conserve. Examples include:

Wildlife protection, version 2.0

These successes led us to pioneer a new, market-minded approach. Known as habitat exchanges, they are a cost-effective way to strike the right balance between wildlife protection and economic growth.

Media contact

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