There is an ambitious plan involving the private sector in efforts to protect the habitat of the monarch butterfly. This holds the promise of sparing nearby communities the burden of having the creature put on the federal endangered species list and could serve as a model for the recovery of other at-risk plants and animals.

In early April, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) concluded an agreement with private landowners and 45 energy and transportation companies under which the private entities will provide habitat for the monarch butterfly. It is the latest of 51 such agreements, known as “candidate conservation agreements with assurances” (CCAAs), that have been struck since 2000. Once a CCAA has been finalized, and provided its terms are adhered to, landowners are not required to carry out any additional conservation measures.

This means landowners and the surrounding communities will not be subjected to the rigorous land-use restrictions of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) which can keep broad swaths of private land out of production for years.

The monarch butterfly or simply monarch (Danaus plexippus) is the most familiar North American butterfly and is considered an iconic pollinator species. Its numbers have declined in California from an estimated 10 million in the 1980s to 300,000 now, according to research from Washington State University, Vancouver, Bloomberg reports.

In 2014, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Food Safety filed a petition requesting ESA protection for the monarch and its habitat. The decision on whether to list the monarch is still pending, and a new deadline for completion of an internal FWS species status review report is set for December 2020. FWS’s willingness to sign CCAAs with affected parties indicates that the Trump administration is looking for ways other than the bureaucratic ESA to protect the butterfly.

Aware of the shortcomings of the ESA – both in terms of species recovery and the economic harm it inflicts on affected areas – the Trump administration last year adopted new rules for the statute aimed at speeding up recovery and enlisting the cooperation of landowners to that end.

Cooperation Instead of Coercion

Referring to the CCAA program, Georgia Parham, a spokeswoman for FWS told Bloomberg: “It’s designed to encourage landowners or land managers to conserve species that are at risk of extinction,” with the goal of avoiding listing altogether.

CCAAs are increasingly being used across the West to help protect the habitat of the greater sage grouse, a chicken-sized, ground-dwelling bird whose dwindling numbers raised concerns that it could be added to the Endangered Species List. That could wreak havoc on the region’s natural resources industry, and state and local officials, along with the private sector, have welcomed CCAAs as a viable alternative to an ESA listing.

“By engaging early in voluntary conservation, utilities and departments of transportation can avoid increased costs and additional delays as a result of a potential listing,” Iris Caldwell, program director at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, which will administer the agreement, said in a statement.

Encouraging Voluntary Conservation

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, which represents small oil and gas producers, points out that her industry has long supported CCAAs as a sensible way to protect at-risk species while minimizing economic harm to nearby communities.

“CCAAs can be an effective tool for protecting habitat while providing regulatory certainty for producers. CCAAs encourage voluntary conservation, and when they are working well, can take the place of a species list,” she told Bloomberg. “We support their voluntary use and other voluntary measures to protect species.”

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