Voluntary Conservation

Tools and Resources for Concerned Landowners

There are a variety of voluntary conservation tools and resources available to landowners who host listed species on their land, who host petitioned species on their land, or who wish to restore favorable habitat conditions for wildlife.

Tools and Resources for Listed Species

Safe Harbor Agreements

A Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) is a voluntary contract between a landowner and a regulatory agency, where the landowner agrees to manage for a baseline population of a listed species. In exchange, the agency agrees that the landowner will not be responsible for any additional members of the listed species that may come to inhabit the landowner’s parcel. These agreements aid in the recovery of listed species while providing regulatory certainty for landowners.

If a landowner is managing for a listed species on their land, a SHA can be established using a baseline population at the time of the agreement. If a landowner wishes to improve habitat for a listed species that does not yet inhabit their land, a zero-baseline can be established for the SHA. The SHA then protects the landowner from any further obligations under the ESA if the species population grows. Under a SHA, the landowner has the ability to return their land to the species’ baseline condition at the end of the contracted term without any penalties under the ESA. In addition, landowners participating in a SHA are allowed a certain amount of “incidental takes” of the listed species under the terms of the agreement.

The SHA process takes at least 6 months (often much longer), as these agreements must go through the Federal Register process. Landowners must provide property maps, proposed management plans, and information about the listed species on the property. A monitoring process is also required.

Incidental Take Permit

While the ESA broadly prohibits the “take” of a listed species, amendments passed in 1982 allow the USFWS to issue permits for the “incidental take” of a listed species resulting from an activity that is otherwise legal. However, the applicant for an incidental take permit must design, implement, and secure funding for a Habitat Conservation Plan to ensure that any harm to the impacted species is minimized and mitigated. The process of obtaining an incidental take permit through the approval of a Habitat Conservation plan takes at least 6 months (often up to a year or more). To initiate this process, contact your nearest USFWS Ecological Services Office.

Species Mitigation Banks

Species mitigation banks or species conservation banks are permanently protected lands hosting high quality habitat capable of supporting the survival and recovery of listed species. Using a market-based approach, these banks function to offset or mitigate adverse impacts to the species that may have occurred in other locations. By protecting habitat, species credits are earned from the USFWS which can then be sold or traded to other parties.

Endangered Species Committee

The Endangered Species Committee was established in the 1979 amendments to the ESA. Often called the “God Squad,” this group of seven federal and state officials has the power to exempt a federal action from compliance with the ESA. This highly controversial process is initiated when a federal agency, a governor of the state in which the federal action will occur, and/or a permit or license applicant submits a request to the federal government for an exemption from the ESA. Five out of the seven members of the committee must vote in favor of the exemption.

Tools & Resources for Petitioned Species

Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances

A Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances (CCAA) is a voluntary agreement between a private landowner and a federal agency in which the landowner commits to implement conservation efforts for a species that has been petitioned or proposed for listing under the ESA but is not yet listed as threatened or endangered. In exchange, the federal agency provides the landowner with assurances that no additional conservation measures will be required beyond those in the CCAA. Hence, if the species is later listed as threatened or endangered, additional regulations under the ESA will not apply to landowners who are participating in a CCAA. In addition, if the species is later listed under the ESA, landowners participating in a CCAA are allowed a certain amount of “incidental takes” of the species under the terms of the agreement.

A successful CCAA aims to remove enough threats to the target species to preclude the need for listing under the ESA. This proactive approach helps to demonstrate that conservation measures are already in place and that listing the species as threatened or endangered is unnecessary.

The development of a CCAA takes at least 6 months (often much longer), as these agreements must go through the Federal Register process. A CCAA agreement will specify the obligations of the landowner as well as a monitoring plan.

Working Lands for Wildlife

Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) is a program run in partnership with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the USFWS, and private owners of working lands. The WLFW program provides participants with technical and financial resources to support voluntary conservation activities to restore populations of specific at-risk species. These resources as well as the lack of a requirement to go through the Federal Register process make this program an attractive option for some landowners.

However, the program provides only limited “ESA predictability” relative to these practices. Unlike the legally enforceable assurances that come with a CCAA or a Safe Harbor Agreement, the “ESA predictability” provided by WLFW comes with restrictions and has yet to be tested in court. According to the USFWS, as long as the landowner maintains existing and created habitat, no additional actions or responsibilities under the ESA will be required. Any “ESA predictability” is specifically tied to continued implementation of the required conservation practices. The WLFW program is also limited to land uses within the “working lands” classification, and ESA predictability would not extend to management actions for purposes other than those related to the WLFW program.

Tools & Resources for Habitat Restoration

USFWS Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program

The Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program provides technical and financial assistance to private landowners wishing to establish, restore, or improve wildlife habitat on their lands. This voluntary program supports many habitat types – including the longleaf pine ecosystem, bottomland hardwoods, tropical forests, and rivers and streams – with the objective of supporting rare, declining, and protected species. The program is guided by an overall goal of returning sites to the ecological conditions that existed prior to habitat loss or degradation.

Through the formation of voluntary agreements, the Partners Program provides technical expertise and cost share assistance directly to private landowners. Landowners then work with a local USFWS biologist to develop and implement the project plan, with a minimum duration of 10 years.

Longleaf Pine Restoration

Under America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative (ALRI) (ALRI), public and private collaborators have set a goal to reach 8 million acres of longleaf pine across the Southeast by the year 2025. As a result, there are many programs available to private landowners wishing to establish new tracts of longleaf pine as well as those wishing to burn or maintain existing longleaf stands. Several of these resources are listed below. You may also wish to contact your state forestry commission for additional resources.

Tool for Environmental, agricultural, and Military Reporting

The Tool for Environmental, Agricultural, and Military (TEAM) Reporting is a useful tool for landowners to identify potential sources for technical and financial assistance supporting conservation measures on private lands. Landowners can locate their parcel using the mapping function and generate a report showing landowner assistance contacts as well as potential federal, state, and local government funding opportunities.