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Become a conservation leader: The benefits of restoring pollinator habitat

September 26, 2019

By David Bender

Ecosystem restoration can position private industry as conservation leaders, promote public awareness, and ignite passion for protecting wildlife

Pollinators have experienced drastic population decline across the globe, including well-known species such as the iconic monarch butterfly and the regal fritillary. So, how can we help stop this decline? Ecosystem restoration can increase habitat and provide opportunities for local populations to stabilize and come back from the brink.

I’ve noticed that some industries are hesitant to provide habitat for these sensitive species. Could it be fear of the potential burden of regulations? Regulations designed to protect species are sometimes thought to be the biggest obstacle to their protection. Why would developers and landowners want to attract sensitive wildlife to their properties? Could this good deed bring unwanted attention from regulatory agencies demanding changes and/or limitations to their land management practices?

As an ecological consultant and former regulator, I have attempted to answer these questions myself and found it challenging. To help relieve landowner concerns, there are regulatory strategies that can still protect sensitive species while reducing this burden.

Monarch butterfly larvae on a common milkweed plant.

Regulatory strategies assist with sensitive species decline

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was a landmark environmental statute developed by the US Congress during a time of alarm for our environment. Congress established the act “to provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered (E) and threatened (T) species depend may be conserved and to provide a program to conserve T&E species themselves.” Congress identified the conservation of ecosystems as the primary concern for the decline of our native flora and fauna.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been tasked with protecting T&E species but their processes can seem long, contentious, and poorly understood by the general public. The listing process itself can be an arduous task with candidate species awaiting listing for many years. For instance, the monarch and regal fritillary were petitioned more than five years ago and are still awaiting a decision. Unlike T&E species, candidate species have different requirements for protection. The USFWS has unique capabilities for handling their conservation, including Candidate Conservation Agreements (CCAs) and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances (CCAA).

Restoring ecosystems can benefit all pollinator species in decline, including those that are less understood by the public.

If plans like CCAAs and private landowner commitments have been successful in preventing sage grouse from becoming listed, can it work for the monarch butterfly, too? Recently, the monarch has been at the forefront of conservation discussions because of its current status and consideration for potential listing under the Endangered Species Act. As the draft CCAA is being developed for the monarch, we have helped developers coordinate with the USFWS when implementing their construction plans. The CCAA includes plans to minimize impacts to existing habitats, restore land that promotes biodiversity, and create new habitat for pollinators. In fact, industries that are currently involved (transportation, transmission, oil and gas, and renewable energy) have developed creative solutions to minimizing the impact to pollinators on their land, including voluntary restrictions to mowing or herbicide application within proximity of the roadway or railway instead of the entire right-of-way.

Once a species has become listed, the Endangered Species Act provides additional mechanisms for conducting “business as usual” in the form of Safe Harbor Agreements (SHA). These SHAs allow private landowners to provide conservation strategies for listed species while continuing to manage their lands. The agreements are voluntary between the USFWS and any non-federal landowner whose actions contribute to the recovery of threatened or endangered species. In exchange for providing habitat, the USFWS or other authority (some states also provide SHA to protect state-listed species) provides assurances that they will not require additional regulatory burdens or oversight without the landowner’s consent. These agreements protect landowners by providing assurances that they will not be prosecuted for their management decisions in the future.

A black swallowtail butterfly on red clover.

Benefits of restoring pollinator habitat

Providing habitat for wildlife can help restore populations across many sectors and states; however, it may require everyone’s participation. For example, states in the Great Plains have the highest percentage of privately-owned land in the United States (Kansas ranked 2nd with 98%, Nebraska ranked 3rd with 97%, and Oklahoma ranked 9th with 95%). As a result, recovery of pollinator species that rely on native ecosystems for foraging during migration and providing host plants for larvae will largely be done by private landowners.

Public landowners, non-governmental organizations, and conservation groups simply do not have the resources to tackle this problem by themselves. Therefore, private landowners and industries not only play a big role in habitat and species conservation, but also forming the necessary partnerships to maintain biodiversity and keep “common species” common.

However, private groups may have to rely on existing regulatory mechanisms to give them some comfort from burdensome oversight. The regulatory community should strive to provide additional options and assurances for conservation programs that instill confidence in developers and landowners.

Conserving pollinator habitat offers many benefits to developers and landowners, including:

  • Cost savings can be recognized when ecosystems are restored to their more natural state through the reduction in overall management costs.
  • Framing the conversation between industry and the regulatory agencies as proactive rather than reactive allows industry to be part of the solution.
  • Early conservation strategies are easier, less expensive, and allow more flexibility since efforts are voluntary.
  • Rather than applying a “shotgun approach,” avoidance to all projects that may include extraneous habitat protection steps for the developer, we can use site-specific data across the entire range of species to develop best management practices.
  • The broad range of some generalist pollinators like the monarch butterfly may create a precedent to get the recommendations right before the agencies are forced to apply “blanket” requirements.
  • Knowing they are protected from regulatory burden, developers may feel the increased ability to implement conservation strategies more proactively.

A small carpenter bee on an aster.

Becoming a conservation leader

Pollinators can be incredible vehicles to position private industry as conservation leaders, promote public awareness, and ignite passion for protecting wildlife, provided landowners are able to restore habitat without worrying about regulatory burdens. Restoring ecosystems can benefit all pollinator species in decline, including those that are less understood by the public. The Endangered Species Act was monumental, providing a mechanism to conserve ecosystems, protect species, and provide a framework for implementing conservation programs.

The intent of the Endangered Species Act was never to apply unnecessary burdens. The USFWS and regulatory agencies employ experienced and knowledgeable biologists who are more than willing to help anyone with an interest in conserving ecosystems and species on their properties. It is up to all of us to maintain our natural heritage and help conserve these precious natural resources for future generations.

  • David Bender

    David has worked for over 16 years as a restoration ecologist and professional in biological sciences. He’s managed research, developed monitoring protocols, and commented on permits. His current projects focus on surveys for wind and solar projects.

    Contact David
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