Rethinking the Endangered Species Act's Implementation on Private, Working Lands (2018-2019)


The U.S. Endangered Species Act is one of the world’s most important conservation laws—and one of its most controversial. Because most listed species have much of their habitat on private lands, improving the Act’s performance on working farms, ranches and forests is critical to its success and survival. 

The Endangered Species Act has played a critical role in saving species from extinction, but has been less successful in recovering species so they no longer require listing under the Act. While much of the public debate around the Act continues to be focused on public lands, the future of most listed species depends at least in part of the conservation of habitat on private working lands where purely regulatory approaches have significant limitations and generate substantial controversy.

Over the last 25 years, there have been significant strides forward in the development of new incentive-based tools for private landowners such as regulatory assurances (e.g., safe harbor agreements), economic incentives (e.g., Farm Bill programs), ecosystem markets (e.g., conservation banking) and conservation of candidate species (e.g. candidate conservation agreements). However, with a few notable exceptions, these approaches have not been adopted at the scale necessary to recover endangered species across large landscapes and within meaningful time frames. Furthermore, implementation of the Act could benefit substantially from adoption of ecosystem-based (rather than single-species-based) approaches.

Project Description

This Bass Connections project will examine the adoption, success and failures of incentive-based approaches to endangered species conservation on private lands over the last 25 years. Through a partnership with two large forest landowners, the project will analyze real-world examples of listed species conservation on working forest land. The team will look at nascent efforts to build multispecies and ecosystem-based incentive approaches, and develop a series of recommendations designed to dramatically increase the adoption and success of large-scale conservation of listed and candidate species on private lands.

Team members will meet with large forest landowners and visit their lands to learn about the challenges of rare species conservation on working lands. These lands will serve as case studies for how to improve design and implementation of existing incentive-based approaches to conservation and develop new approaches, including ecosystem-based approaches.

The team will interact with experts from the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been a leader in the development of incentive-based approaches to endangered species conservation on private lands. Experts will provide insight and expertise into the development of the recommendations.

Anticipated Outcomes

Report describing successes and challenges of existing incentive-based approaches to species conservation on working lands and outlining recommendations designed to dramatically increase both the scale and success of those approaches; recommendations for implementation of an ecosystem-based approach to endangered species conservation; potential workshop for policymakers, agencies, landowner groups, conservation groups and other stakeholders on improving the implementation of the Endangered Species Act on private lands

Student Opportunities

Students will engage with experts and practitioners of endangered species conservation. Through the forest land case study, they will learn real world application of conservation theory and policy to specific lands. Students will learn the policy development process and potentially get to participate in a meaningful workshop on endangered species conservation. They will produce a report that can make an important contribution to endangered species policy in the U.S.

The team will consist of 6-10 students, with one student (likely a graduate student) serving as a project manager. The team will be drawn from graduate students (4-7) in the Nicholas School, Law School, Sanford School and Fuqua. Undergraduates (2-3) should have coursework in environmental law and policy, conservation science, public policy and/or economics. Team members with GIS skills and strong quantitative skills to analyze data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture would be beneficial to the team.

The team will meet once a week for 90 minutes (with additional time scheduled as needed) and have a graduate-level project manager. Students will likely need to schedule time to meet separately outside of class time.

The class will be graded. Students will be asked to submit a self-evaluation. Grades will be based on class participation, work rate and quality of the work products.


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019  

The team will be asked to complete summer background reading on the Endangered Species Act and species conservation on private lands.

  • Fall 2018: Gain understanding of issues related to working lands conservation and build the research agenda; begin workshop planning; take field trip to working forest land and build case study; continued research and case study development; preliminary research results.
  • Spring 2019: Finalize research; begin recommendation development; draft initial report with recommendations; deliver workshop; finalize and release report.


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters

Faculty/Staff Team Members

Robert Bonnie, Nicholas School of the Environment*

* denotes team leader


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