March 13th, 2012 by

By Katrina Marland

Yesterday, Michelle wrote about the challenges in defining exactly what makes an animal officially endangered. It’s an important issue because that language can determine whether or not the government invests its resources in trying to save a species by taking conservation action across public lands. Here’s the problem, though: Endangered species are not found exclusively on public lands. They can’t see property lines, and they have no way of knowing that the thousands of people and millions of dollars working to protect them can only do so in certain places. So when they make their homes elsewhere — say on a farm or in a private forest — they put themselves in danger.

A baby bog turtle (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior are joining forces to address this gap in protection through a partnership called Working Lands for Wildlife. It’s a tag-team sort of program. First, the Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) will determine which at-risk species need the most protection on private land. Then, using $33 million set aside from the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program (WHIP), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide the landowners with resources to protect those species or improve their habitats.

To kick the program off, they are starting with seven species in particular need of protection on private land: New England cottontail, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken and Southwestern willow flycatcher. Never heard of any of them? Neither had I. But after reading more about them, it seems that they’re in no less danger than the whooping crane or polar bear; you just don’t often see them publicized because so many hide out on private land, not in zoos or national parks.

Greater Sage-Grouse (Credit: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The goal is to help these species as the program works through its inaugural year and add more species as time goes on. It’s understandable that a farmer, forester or anyone who has to manage acres upon acres of land might not be able to set a lot of time and resources aside for protecting one species, but the Working Lands for Wildlife partnership aims to make it easier. All a landowner has to do is enroll in WHIP through their local NRCS office to get the ball rolling. Hopefully, the program will not only be able to stabilize these species and others, but also take an important step towards helping private landowners realize that they can play an important role in preserving the natural biodiversity of their region.

To learn more about what happens when endangered species make their homes on private land, check out the article “Endangered Forest Species” from our most recent issue of American Forests magazine.