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


Fall 2018 – Spring 2019 

  • 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.

Team Outcomes to Date

Rethinking the Endangered Species Act’s Implementation on Private, Working Lands (poster by Joshua Azza, Virginia Frediani, Julia Kemper, Emily Leung, Alexander Loomis, Charles Mize, Spencer Scheidt, presented at Bass Connections Showcase, Duke University, April 17, 2019)


People using map

Team Leaders

  • Robert Bonnie, Nicholas School of the Environment

/graduate Team Members

  • Bryan David, Business and Environment
  • Virginia Frediani, Master of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Science and Conservation
  • Emily Leung, Forest Resource Management-MF, Master of Environmental Management, Ecosystem Science and Conservation
  • Alexander Loomis, Biology - PHD
  • Charles Mize, Forest Resource Management-MF, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Spencer Scheidt, Juris Doctor

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Joshua Azza, Biology (BS), Music (AB2)
  • John Desan, Public Policy Studies (AB)
  • Julia Kemper , Environmental Sci/Policy (AB), Dance (AB2)