Blog Post

Greater Sage Grouse Conservation: Pre-listing Programs as a Repeated Game

Mar 7, 2016 | Rebecca Epanchin-Niell, Kimberly Rollins, Michael H. Taylor

This is the first post in a new blog series—Private Incentives and the Public Good: Conservation of Sage Grouse and the Sagebrush Ecosystem—that will explore economic issues related to connections across private conservation efforts, public lands, sage grouse and the sagebrush ecosystem, and the US Endangered Species Act.

(USFWS Mountain-Prairie | Flickr)

Sagebrush habitats span vast areas of the western United States, are home to over 350 wildlife species, and provide important landscapes for livestock grazing, energy and mineral development, and recreation. Yet the sagebrush-steppe is among the nation’s most imperiled ecosystems—threatened by development, invasive annual grasses, and altered wildfire regimes. Greater sage grouse, which has received substantial attention in recent years, is just one of the species that critically depends on this habitat. Most research on managing sage grouse and the sagebrush habitats is based largely in natural science. However, Jim Lyons (Deputy Assistant Secretary, Land and Minerals Management, US Department of the Interior) noted at a recent conference that the most important part of managing wildlife is managing people. Reflecting on this, we are exploring the challenges of sagebrush and sage grouse management in a series of periodic blog posts from our perspectives as economists. First, we’re taking a look at pre-listing conservation programs.

In September 2015, in a highly anticipated decision, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) decided not to list the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Leading up to this decision, stakeholders throughout the western United States had worked for more than a decade to place the bird on sustainable footing. The FWS touts its sage grouse strategy as the largest land conservation effort in US history and contends that it has significantly reduced threats across 90 percent of the species’ breeding habitat.

In official statements that accompanied the ESA listing decision, the FWS cited the success of ongoing conservation efforts by private property owners—largely ranchers—as one of the important factors in its decision. Conservation efforts on private lands were essential because 31 percent of total sage grouse habitat and 80 percent of habitat for raising young birds are on private property. Two pre-listing programs associated with the ESA played key roles in engaging private property owners in sage grouse conservation:

CCAAs and WLFW are both voluntary programs where private property owners agree to implement a set of conservation practices. In return, the FWS provides regulatory predictability through assurances that the conservation practices will not be modified or added to in the event that the sage grouse is listed under the ESA. The assurances are guaranteed for the duration of the agreements—20 to 40 years for most CCAAs and until 2040 in the case of WLFW—unless the property owner fails to properly implement the agreed-upon conservation practices. (Read more about such opportunities, as well as challenges and partnerships related to imperiled species conservation in this RFF discussion paper and Resources article.)

The importance of CCAA and WLFW programs in the agency’s decision not to list the sage grouse is reflected in part by the scale of participation in these programs. Prior to September’s listing decision, 1.8 million acres had been effectively conserved for sage grouse in Oregon and Wyoming through enrollment in CCAAs. As of August 2015, 1,129 ranches across 11 western states were conserving 4.4 million acres of land under WLFW, and conservation-amenable grazing practices had been implemented across 2.4 million acres of privately owned grazing land. In addition, NRCS expects voluntary conservation efforts on private land to reach 8 million acres by 2018.

But these programs can be viewed as repeated games between private property owners and the FWS, which could bring unintended and costly consequences. Specifically, the agency’s decision not to list the sage grouse potentially changed the expectations of private property owners about the likelihood that the species will be listed in the future and their costs if the species were listed relative to the status quo, which could affect future enrollment in these programs.

Changing Property Owners’ Expectations

Although the CCAA and WLFW programs played an important role in the decision of the FWS not to list the sage grouse under the ESA last September, the listing decision could reduce the effectiveness of these programs going forward for four reasons:

  1. Landowners perceive a reduction in program benefits due to reduced likelihood of future listing. The benefit to private property owners of participating in the CCAAs and/or WLFW programs depends, in part, on the potential costs associated with a decision to list the species under the ESA. If private property owners now believe that future listing of the sage grouse is less likely, then the September 2015 decision will reduce the perceived benefits from CCAAs and WLFW participation and may reduce future enrollment and/or cause currently enrolled private property owners to exit the programs. Private property owners can withdraw from these agreements with just 30- to 60-day notice.
  2. Reduced uncertainty about the necessary conservation to avoid listing may induce greater free-riding. By enrolling in CCAAs and/or WLFW, participants are contributing to two public goods. First, by maintaining and/or restoring sage grouse habitat on their property, private landowners are contributing to the sustainability of the species and the provisioning of other ecosystem services from their land. Second, if a sufficient number of private property owners enroll in these programs, their combined conservation efforts could sway the decision whether to list the species under the ESA. Prior to the agency’s decision not to list the sage grouse in September, there was uncertainty among private property owners about what level of enrollment in CCAAs and WLFW was necessary to avoid the species being listed. The September decision removes some of this uncertainty by contending that existing conservation measures were at least enough to avoid listing. If any property owners believe that the achieved conservation level actually exceeded what was required, some could choose to exit the CCAAs and WLFW programs and free-ride on others’ contributions to the public good of reducing the likelihood of ESA listing.
  3. Costs remain high despite decision not to list the sage grouse. Listing of the sage grouse under the ESA would have imposed substantial land use restrictions across vast areas of the western United States, as the act prohibits harm to any listed species or its habitat. As part of the decision not to list the bird, however, federal and state agencies have been mandated by the FWS to manage the sage grouse “as though” it had been listed under the ESA. While it is almost certainly the case that the restrictions would be more onerous and costly had the species been listed under the ESA, the incentives to participate in CCAA and/or WLFW programs depend in part on there being a wedge between the costs of complying with land use restrictions with and without ESA listing. As this wedge is diminished by the decision to manage the sage grouse as though it had been listed, the incentives for private property owners to participate in CCAAs and WLFW are also reduced, as there are fewer gains from avoiding listing.
  4. Costs of compliance post-listing could be similar to costs under pre-listing programs on private lands. The role of CCAAs and WLFW in the decision not to list the sage grouse under the ESA reflects their perceived effectiveness at achieving sage grouse conservation objectives on private land. As such, post-listing conservation programs under the ESA (e.g., Safe Harbor Agreements) could resemble these pre-listing programs such that costs could be similar. This would reduce the cost wedge between pre-listing conservation and post-listing ESA compliance, again reducing incentives to enroll.

The Future of Pre-Listing Conservation Programs

How important these changes will be to private property owners’ perceptions of the value of the regulatory predictability offered by CCAAs and WLFWs remains to be seen. In the coming months and years, it will be informative to observe any exit by current participants as well as new enrollment in these two programs to better understand their value over the long run. While these and other ESA tools aimed at promoting conservation on private lands are critical for achieving species recovery and enhancing management flexibility, evaluation is needed to hone their effectiveness and enhance the science upon which decisions are made.

In future posts in this series—Private Incentives and the Public Good: Conservation of Sage Grouse and the Sagebrush Ecosystem—we’ll examine how policies on public lands might affect private land conservation, due to the integration of ranch operations across land boundaries, and look at how land easements and new mitigation credit policies under the Endangered Species Act are likely to affect conservation of sage grouse and sagebrush ecosystems.