A New Approach for Endangered Species

To balance environmental protection with agricultural needs and food security, cooperation is crucial.

To balance environmental protection with agricultural needs and food security, cooperation is crucial.
When most people think of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), they’re probably inclined to recall its celebrated successes—the bald eagle, for example, or the peregrine falcon. But that’s not the whole story. Since its inception 43 years ago, the ESA has actually listed some 1,600 species, and only 29 of those species have recovered and been delisted. Also, the habitats for 70 percent of those endangered species are found on private land, often the vast expanses owned by farmers and ranchers, which puts those landowners at legal risk over how they use their land and sometimes leads to confrontations and court battles.

Challenges With ESA

Some of the challenges are found in the law itself, says Ryan Yates, the American Farm Bureau’s director of congressional relations. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is statutorily required to list species, not statutorily required to recover them,” he says. “While that’s a laudable goal, the service has largely focused its efforts on the listing side of the equation.”

Another problem is the web of lawsuits—many filed by environmental interests— that now largely controls the implementation of the ESA. “ESA has morphed into a litigation-driven model that really punishes those who are practicing conservation and land management at the local level,” Yates adds.

“ESA [Endangered Species Act] has morphed into a litigation-driven model that really punishes those who are practicing conservation and land management at the local level.”

Ryan Yates
The volume of ESA-related litigation is tremendous and a drain on all involved parties, including the government, environmental groups and often agriculture, says Dan Campbell, Syngenta team lead for regulatory affairs. “With the many new, innovative product registrations Syngenta brings, the environmental activists sue the Environmental Protection Agency over the registration, because they feel the agency hasn’t fulfilled the obligations of the Endangered Species Act. That’s having a huge impact on our ability to innovate—and that’s a major impact on agriculture.”

Protecting Pollinators

One of the most active discussions around ESA right now involves the monarch butterfly. Monarch populations are declining by some 9 percent annually, and the species has been proposed for listing. “A lot of people say, since we’ve been so efficient in controlling milkweed in the fields, we’ve removed a lot of the food sources,” says Caydee Savinelli, Ph.D., pollinator and IPM stewardship lead for Syngenta. “There’s debate whether or not that’s true. But the bottom line is if we increase milkweed and other nectar plants, it helps the monarchs.”

To help do that—and avoid a listing under ESA—farm groups like the American Farm Bureau are looking at opportunities to work with multiple sectors to enhance conservation efforts, says Paul Schlegel, director of environment and energy policy for the American Farm Bureau. “We can help inform growers about the importance of the migratory pattern of the monarch, as well as help them better understand and identify milkweed species that may be in buffer areas or areas around active farms,” he says. “I think we—the ag, energy and local government sectors—can collectively make great strides in protecting that habitat to preclude a future listing.”

Syngenta is working toward the same goal in several ways. The company participates in the Monarch Collaborative, a consortium of commodity and conservation groups. “These groups get together and say, ‘What can we do to increase the habitat and food sources for the monarch butterfly?’” Savinelli says. “The farmers are really important because they’re the large landowners, especially in the Midwest. We need their help.”

Operation Pollinator from Syngenta also aims to help monarchs, honey bees and other pollinators on commercial farms. This international biodiversity program works by creating specific habitats, tailored to local conditions. The program works with universities, governmental bodies, nongovernmental organizations and food producers.

Cooperation is crucial for the recovery of endangered species living near farmland.

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Syngenta engages with stakeholders in additional biodiversity habitat programs, which all start with the idea of collaboration, Savinelli says. “We follow a model of partnership, because we certainly can’t do it alone. But if we can collaborate, everybody wins.”

The Collaborative Approach

The American Farm Bureau’s position—like that of many agricultural groups—is that public land users, instead of the current system of land-use restrictions and litigation-driven decisions, could more effectively achieve endangered and threatened species protection. “We should promote incentive-based conservation and outreach with growers and landowners and better incentivize them to make decisions that could ultimately help the long-term recovery of the species,” Yates says.

Another strategy that could improve outcomes for all parties is the net-conservation approach, which says habitat improvement measures can offset the uncertainty over potential impacts on an endangered species. “We feel like there’s a strong potential for that to be a solution,” Campbell says. “Instead of all the energy and resources going into defending lawsuits, we could put those resources into habitat improvements within the agricultural landscape.”

It’s another approach Syngenta is pursuing to protect agriculture and wild species and their habitats, he says. “We’re exploring that as a possible solution, which would be a win-win for agriculture, for species and for our need to have a clear regulatory pathway.”