Interior Dept. Announces New Policy for Species Protection Agreements

Published January 30, 2017

The U.S. Department of the Interior has authorized its final policy guidance on how federal government authorities should work with private landowners to prevent the decline of wildlife populations while avoiding adding species to the federal lists of endangered or threatened species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service announced new regulations on Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA), defining the limits on such agreements and how they are brokered and approved.

CCAAs are intended to encourage private landowners and state agencies on whose properties reside species under consideration for being placed on the endangered or threatened species list—or habitat that could be used by such species—to help species recover. CCAAs accomplish this by providing landowners with assurances if they take steps outlined in the agreement, the federal government will not impose onerous limits on their land use.

The policy update, released in late December, is aimed at encouraging more landowners to enter into CCAAs. CCAAs have been in use since the Clinton administration, but under previous regulatory schemes, they could be approved only if landowners took actions to “preclude or remove any need to list the covered species.”

Expanding ESA Reach

This standard proved difficult for landowners and federal regulators, who often found to satisfy the terms of the agreement landowners would have to address matters beyond their control. Under the new “net conservation benefit” rule, “the property owner commits to continuing to manage the species for a specified period of time, including addressing any future threats that are under the property owner’s control.”

Brian Seasholes, a former research fellow with Reason Foundation, says the new policies will not make signing CCAAs more attractive for landowners.

“The Obama administration is actually making the act more unfriendly for landowners than the actual law,” said Seasholes. “Under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the private sector is only obligated not to violate the statute, but there is no requirement for the private sector to conserve species.

“The new policy, by requiring a ‘net conservation benefit,’ continues a decades-long policy push by the Interior Department, initiated under the Clinton administration, to rewrite the Endangered Species Act by foisting the responsibility for conserving species from the federal government to the private sector,” Seasholes said. “This policy shift harms the goal of species conservation because it makes private landowners more resentful and reluctant to conserve species.”

Seasholes says Congress should act to rein in ESA regulatory abuses.

“Only Congress is supposed to be able to write federal law,” said Seasholes. “The revisions to Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances cry out for Congress to assert its constitutional role and put a stop to administrative amendments to the Endangered Species Act.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.