How the farm bill helps landowners and wildlife thrive together

This week, the Senate advanced a farm bill that includes many important provisions for conservation on America’s working farms, ranches and forestlands. Among these provisions is language codifying the Working Lands for Wildlife program that helps farmers and ranchers restore habitat for at-risk wildlife. It’s the first time the program has been formally recognized in the farm bill.

Thanks to the work of private landowners, conservation groups, tribes, and state and government agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided in September 2015 to remove the New England cottontail from the endangered species candidate list due to recovery. (Photo credit: Brian Tefft, Principal Wildlife Biologist at Rhode Island Division of Fish and Wildlife.)

Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service program, USDA provides technical and financial assistance to landowners who voluntarily make improvements to wildlife habitat on their property. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pairs this with regulatory predictability under the Endangered Species Act.

It’s a win-win approach for improving agricultural productivity while enhancing habitat for wildlife.

Proven success for producers and wildlife

To date, the Working Lands for Wildlife program has helped producers conserve more than 7.1 million acres of wildlife habitat in 19 key landscapes across 48 states. [Click here to see a detailed map of Working Lands for Wildlife target species and projects.]

EDF has worked with landowners in several states on a number of species that have benefited from the program, including the greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, New England cottontail and monarch butterfly.

How landowners helped save the New England cottontail

In the listing decisions for the greater sage-grouse and the New England cottontail, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service specifically recognized the value of private landowners’ conservation efforts and their enrollments in the Working Lands for Wildlife program as key factors in the decisions not to list the species under the ESA.

Clearly, farmers and ranchers are making a difference for wildlife conservation, and farm bill programs are having proven benefits.

A model for a more resilient future

A key reason for the Working Lands for Wildlife program’s success to date is that it focuses limited resources on providing technical assistance and financial incentives for species that are indicators of the health of broader at-risk landscapes. By focusing dollars on restoring these larger landscapes, the program can support countless other wildlife and natural resources far beyond the single species of concern.

“The more we can do to stimulate the conservation efforts of private landowners, the more successful we will be in protecting wildlife.”

Another efficient policy design is focusing resources on species before they reach crisis stage. By providing landowners with regulatory assurances for early and voluntary actions, the program can recover species sooner and possibly preclude the need for a species to be added to the endangered species list – an outcome that benefits everyone.

The Senate farm bill includes language for strengthening the ability of USDA and Interior to work together to ensure regulatory certainty for key conservation practices under appropriate conditions.

5 reasons why the Senate farm bill is a conservation powerhouse

The smart combination of prioritizing large landscapes and promoting early action provides an excellent model for other federal, state and local policies and programs aimed at increasing landowner stewardship, prosperity and resilience. I hope to see these proactive, voluntary and cooperative efforts remain a priority as the 2018 farm bill moves towards conferencing a final bill.

The more we can do to stimulate the conservation efforts of private landowners, the more successful we will be in protecting wildlife. Because, at the end of the day, the needs of our nation’s wildlife aren’t that different from the needs of agricultural producers. They both need healthy, productive land to thrive.

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