The New York Times this week documented an interesting policy battle taking place in Washington D.C.: whether or not to allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the Sage Grouse on the Endangered Species list.
The battle lines are familiar and predictable. The Republicans oppose protection for the Sage Grouse because it would render hundreds of thousands of acres of grazing land, farmland, and oilfields in the West economically impotent if they happen to overlap Sage Grouse habitat. The Democrats, on the other hand, are putting a higher premium on conservation than on economic growth in this case, and support the USFWS placing the Sage Grouse under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Grouse population has declined by half since 2007, in part because of habitat loss. Wind farms, ranches, and oilfields all impinge upon its habitat, the open Western prairies. Protecting the Grouse would entail restricting the expansion of these industries out West.
There is a third way. As Mario Loyola outlined in an article for us back in our November-December 2013 issue, a market-based conservation policy that makes room for both economic growth and habitat protection is within reach, and is being experimented with in Texas. Instead of utilizing regulatory power to strike fear into the hearts of landowners, Mario suggests, the Texas model incentivizes landowners to protect and rejuvenate habitats, and brings a variety of stakeholders together to determine the best solutions to maintain healthy habitats. In a nutshell, it seems to encourage both economic growth and conservation.
And indeed, in reality Congress doesn’t face so stark a choice between the Grouse’s extinction and economic ruin for the Western states. Government officials from Utah have insisted that the Western states are more than capable of managing their Grouse populations without federal interference, while scientists from Montana claim that there is more attention being paid to Grouse conservation from local communities and businesses than at any time before.
A bottom-up, market-based approach to conservation may well be a better way to protect the Sage Grouse than simply placing it on the Endangered Species list. As we move forward in the 21st century, thinking well outside the box on issues such as this will be necessary to solve the myriad problems we face as a society.