Private‐Sector Conservation Under the US Endangered Species Act: A Return‐On‐Investment Perspective

This study applies a return‐on‐investment (ROI) perspective to explore better ways to target private‐sector conservation engagement under the Endangered Species Act.

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April 6, 2020


Journal Article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment

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1 minute


The US Endangered Species Act (ESA) is an important safety net for the protection and recovery of critically imperiled species. One mechanism of the ESA is prohibitions on harming listed species and their habitat, yet the ESA does not require proactive conservation by the private sector, which is necessary for the recovery of many species. A range of ESA programs have been developed – including Candidate Conservation Agreements, Safe Harbor Agreements, and a Voluntary Prelisting Conservation Actions policy – to enhance flexibility and encourage voluntary conservation activities. But why would businesses and other private landowners voluntarily engage in proactive conservation efforts above and beyond what is required for ESA compliance? We applied a return‐on‐investment (ROI) perspective to outline sources of costs and benefits and to explore program participation incentives. This ROI perspective sheds light on the types of financial factors likely to affect private‐sector participation and program effectiveness, and points to better ways to target private‐sector engagement and design more effective programs.

Key Findings

  • Achieving the conservation goals of the US Endangered Species Act (ESA) depends heavily on voluntary conservation efforts by private landowners and businesses above and beyond ESA compliance requirements
  • Federal agencies have developed programs aimed at incentivizing voluntary conservation practices, which pose a range of benefits and costs to private landowners and firms
  • Applying a “return‐on‐investment” perspective to these programs helps identify factors that affect incentives for participation
  • Incentives may be enhanced through increased availability of programmatic agreements, regulatory assurances, technical and financial assistance, and tailored protections for threatened species
  • Targeting outreach to landowners who face higher participation benefits and lower conservation costs (eg due to compatibility of land use) could increase participation


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