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«Toward More Effective Endangered Species Regulation By Jacob P. Byl Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of Vanderbilt ...»

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The matching estimators for harvest support the story that safe-harbor agreements are effective for landowners that choose to enter them, but the change in behavior is not large enough to make a detectable effect when looking at averages across the area. This finding suggests that expansion of participation in the safe-harbor program above the 145 sites currently enrolled may lead to larger differences.

There is stronger evidence that safe-harbor agreements encourage landowners to improve habitat for wildlife. Many landowners care about wildlife on their property, whether because of an inherent preference for wildlife or because of a taste for hunting.

In areas like North Carolina where a majority of land is privately held and hunting clubs manage thousands of those acres, it is unsurprising that many landowners would like to manage forests in ways that encourage wildlife. This can be done by strategically thinning trees or performing controlled burns to clear underbrush, for example. The safeharbor program appears to have led to a 10% increase in activity to improve wildlife habitat. Unlike the results of the harvest model, this result is driven by the landowners expected to respond the most to the safe-harbor program, namely those who have RCW colonies within ten miles. Matching estimators do not show significant results for the safe-harbor program on wildlife improvement, so evidence on the effectiveness in this realm is mixed as well.

When landowners are able to improve wildlife habitat without feeling threatened by regulation under the ESA, such as under the safe-harbor program, it provides a clear benefit to endangered species like the RCW. RCWs are able to forage more effectively when trees are thinned and controlled burns are performed, which are some of the improvement activities that landowners undertake to improve habitat for game species like deer and wild turkey. Some other endangered species may not benefit from these types of activities, so FWS should consider how complementary habitat improvement is for popular game species and the endangered species in question. All else equal, safeharbor programs appear to hold more promise for species that have complementary habitat needs to game species because this safe-harbor program appears to encourage wildlife habitat improvement activities more than it mitigates the perverse incentive to adjust timber harvests to a shorter rotation.

X. Conclusion The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to conserve ecosystems of endangered species, but in some cases it leads to the destruction of those ecosystems.

Preemptive habitat destruction is a relatively persistent response despite attempts such as the safe-harbor program to dampen the incentives that lead to this destruction.

Landowners in North Carolina harvest mature pine near RCWs at a 25% faster rate than mature pine that is not near RCWs. If this behavior continues, there is a threat that RCWs will become isolated in existing colonies and on public lands.

The FWS has attempted to dampen the perverse incentive to destroy RCW habitat by offering safe-harbor agreements to landowners. There is not strong evidence that the safe-harbor program has prevented landowners from adjusting tree harvests to destroy habitat, although there may be spillovers in the targeted area as landowners who are not currently near RCWs enter agreements to lock in insurance policies with low land-use restrictions. There is stronger evidence that the safe-harbor agreements encourage landowners to manage land in ways that improve wildlife habitat with a 10% increase in this behavior. Since RCWs benefit from many of the same activities that landowners use to improve habitat for wildlife like deer and wild turkey, this represents a success for this endangered species program.

The ultimate effectiveness of the safe-harbor program depends on biological outcomes for RCWs that require a long time horizon to collect and are difficult data to measure. In the meantime, results in this paper indicate reasons to be cautiously optimistic about safe-harbor agreements and the possibility that they can encourage habitat improvement for endangered species. Safe-harbor agreements are one of a range of voluntary conservation tools that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is using to attempt to encourage more cooperation with private landowners. Although there are still open questions about the effectiveness of these programs, they hold the promise of a win-win improvement over the current situation by allowing landowners to have more options as they balance conservation and the use of natural resources. Simultaneously, federal agencies can be better able to pursue the goals of strong and important environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act. Hopefully, endangered species like the redcockaded woodpecker can thrive in this more cooperative environment as well.

REFERENCES Dana, David A. 1995. “Natural Preservation and the Race to Develop.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 143 (3): 655-708.

Epstein, Richard A. 1997. “Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Oregon: The Law and Economics of Habitat Preservation.” Supreme Court Economic Review. 5: 1-57.

Ferraro, Paul, Craig McIntosh, and Monica Ospina. 2007. “The Effectiveness of the U.S.

Endangered Species Act: An Econometric Analysis Using Matching Methods.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 54: 245-61.

Greenstone, Michael, and Ted Gayer. 2009. “Quasi-Experimental and Experimental Approaches to Environmental Economics.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 57: 21-44.

Langpap, Christian. 2006. “Conservation of Endangered Species: Can Incentives Work for Private Landowners?” Ecological Economics. 57: 558-72.

Langpap, Christian, and Joe Kerkvliet. 2012. “Endangered Species Conservation on Private Land: Assessing the Effectiveness of Habitat Conservation Plans.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 64: 1-15.

Langpap, Christian, and JunJie Wu. 2004. “Voluntary Conservation of Endangered Species: When Does No Regulatory Assurances Mean No Conservation?” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 47: 435-57.

Lueck, Dean and Jeffrey A. Michael. 2003. “Preemptive Habitat Destruction under the Endangered Species Act.” Journal of Law and Economics. 46 (1): 27-60.

Polasky, Stephen, and Holly Doremus. 1998. “When the Truth Hurts: Endangered Species Policy on Private Land with Imperfect Information.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 35: 22-47.

Ruhl, J.B. 1998. “The Endangered Species Act and Private Property: A Matter of Timing and Location.” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. 8 (1): 37-54.

Ruhl, J.B. 2008. “Climate Change and the Endangered Species Act: Building Bridges to the No-Analog Future.” Boston University Law Review. 88 (1): 1-63.

Shogren, Jason F. 1998. Private Property and the Endangered Species Act: Saving Habitats, Protecting Homes. Austin, TX : University of Texas Press.

Smith, Rodney B. W., and Jason F. Shogren. 2002. “Voluntary Incentive Design for Endangered Species Protection.” Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. 43: 169-87.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 1985. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan.

Atlanta, GA: Government Printing Office.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 2010. Red-Cockaded Woodpecker: Species Profile.

Atlanta, GA: Government Printing Office.

Zhang, Daowei. 2004. “Endangered Species and Timber Harvesting: The Case of RedCockaded Woodpeckers.” Economic Inquiry. 42 (1): 150-65.


Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531.

Statute gives authority to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the Department of the Interior to engage in a range of activities to preserve species and the habitats upon which they depend. Section nine grants the FWS authority to regulate the “take” of listed species on both public and private lands. To “take” includes to “harm” the species. FWS has interpreted “harm” to include habitat destruction.

Tennessee Valley Authority v. Hill, 437 U.S. 153 (1978).

U.S. Supreme Court held that construction of a dam should be enjoined under the Endangered Species Act because it would destroy critical habitat for the snail darter, an endangered species. “Congress has spoken in the plainest of words, making it abundantly clear that the balance has been struck in favor of affording endangered species the highest of priorities, thereby adopting a policy which it described as ‘institutionalized caution.’” (p. 194).

Babbitt v. Sweet Home Chapter of Communities for a Great Oregon, 515 U.S. 687 (1995).

FWS was within its authority under the Endangered Species Act when it interpreted the ban on ‘take’ of endangered species to include habitat destruction.

Arizona Cattle Growers Association v. U.S. Fish & Wildlife, 273 F.3d 1229 (9th Cir.


FWS exceeded its authority under the Endangered Species Act when it imposed restrictions on grazing leases for properties that it had not shown with “reasonable certainty” were currently endangered species habitat.

Seiber v. United States, F.3d 1356 (Fed. Cir. 2004).

FWS restricted a landowner of a 200-acre tract of timber from harvesting trees due to the presence of spotted owls. The court held that this was not a regulatory taking because it did not deprive the landowner of all economic uses of the land.

Palila v. Hawaii, 852 F.2d 1106 (9th Cir. 1988).

FWS ordered the state of Hawaii to eradicate feral pigs that were destroying habitat for endangered species. The court held that this was within the authority of the agency under the ESA.


Figure 1—Landowner Decision Tree from Conceptual Model

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Notes: RCW = red-cockaded woodpecker. Lighter green dots indicate FIA plots. Darker red dots indicate RCW colonies. Map created with ArcGIS. Data on forest plots come from the U.S. Forest Service FIA Database (2014) and RCW data come from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (2012). Forest plots that appear to be in the ocean are on barrier islands that are not depicted on the base map.

Figure 3—Forest Plots, RCW Colonies, and Safe-harbor Agreements in Sandhills Region of North Carolina Notes: RCW = red-cockaded woodpecker. Lighter green dots indicate FIA plots. Darker red dots indicate RCW colonies. Pale purple polygons indicate properties in safe-harbor agreements. Map created with ArcGIS. Data on forest plots come from the U.S. Forest Service FIA Database (2014), RCW data come from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (2012), and safe-harbor agreement data come from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (2013).

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Notes: Reported statistic is the probability of harvest within the previous five years.

Includes sites sampled between 2001 and 2013 in the Piedmont and coastal regions of NC.

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Table 7—Triple-Difference Regression to Test Impact of Safe-Harbor Program on Habitat Destruction in Sandhills of North Carolina

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Table 8—Triple-Difference Regression to Test Impact of Safe-Harbor Program on Improving Wildlife Habitat in Sandhills of North Carolina

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Table 9—Nearest-Neighbor Matching Estimators to Test Impact of Safe-Harbor Program on Harvest and Improving Wildlife Habitat in Sandhills of North Carolina

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I. Introduction The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a powerful law, but the power of the law does not always lead to favorable results. In some instances, landowners face perverse incentives to destroy habitat of species that are or may be protected under the ESA (Lueck & Michael 2003). Private landowners who may have endangered species on their properties often find themselves in adversarial relationships with federal regulators like the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) because regulators restrict land uses to encourage conservation. Increased populations of endangered species are a goal for the FWS, while more endangered species mean more restrictions for the landowner. Landowners may try to avoid regulations by destroying habitat before species move onto it, by destroying species before they are listed as endangered, or by illegally destroying listed species and hoping not to get caught.

To alleviate these perverse incentives, regulators have tried to create regulatory tools that can foster more cooperative relationships with landowners. One of these tools is the safe-harbor agreement, a voluntary contract between landowners and regulators that can act like an insurance policy for landowners (U.S. FWS 2006). The landowner agrees to provide at least some endangered species habitat in exchange for a promise from the FWS not to impose more burdensome restrictions if more members of the endangered species move onto the property. Another tool that has been proposed is to create a market for tradable credits that would be issued to landowners who provide habitat for species.

This paper contributes to the literature with the first experimental evidence of how landowners respond to existing and proposed policies to encourage the provision of endangered species habitat.

It is difficult to get an empirical measure of the effectiveness of different regulatory regimes regarding endangered species. While some policies have been in place in the real world for long enough for there to be sufficient data for hypothesis testing, many other policies have only been proposed and never implemented. Even where there are policies in place, it can be difficult to gather data and find sources of exogenous variation in the data that make it possible to empirically test for causal relationships.

Although researchers have been able to confront these obstacles to answer some questions like the effectiveness of listing species as endangered or threatened (Ferraro, McIntosh, & Ospina 2007) and habitat-conservation plans (Langpap & Kerkvliet 2012), there are still many questions about which regulatory tools hold the most promise to decrease the adversarial nature of endangered species conservation.

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