The ESA and the Role of Private Lands with Tiffany McFarland

One of the most important aspects of our work is sharing conservation knowledge and experiences with private landowners, citizen scientists, and policymakers. This exchange with the public is crucial for any kind of conservation success, and we are honored to share our findings through our researchers, experts, and communicators. For the last 15 years, one of NRI’s research associates, Tiffany McFarland, has been involved with the research and management of endangered species. This spring, she had the opportunity to visit with land stewards about the role of private lands and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Ranching & Wildlife Expo, where she shared background information about the ESA and why private land managers are so important to ensuring the longevity of rare species.

McFarland’s Background

McFarland’s early research focused on surveying for the formerly listed black-capped vireo (Vireo atricapilla), where she experienced firsthand the intersection of endangered species conservation and private landownership. Her team needed to conduct population surveys both on lands around known population hubs for the species, as well as at random locations across the 27 counties that make up the species’ range in Texas. The arduous process involved locating parcel numbers on paper maps, searching for the owners’ contact information, then calling between 2,000 and 3,000 landowners to ask for permission to enter their land and scout for the small songbirds, prioritizing location and landowner anonymity. Ultimately, about 200 properties permitted the team access to search for the vireos. Thanks in large part to the landowners who graciously worked with the team, McFarland and the survey team were able to contribute data to the 2018 delisting decision that showed there were many more black-capped vireos living on private lands than previously thought.

Today, McFarland works on Species Status Assessments (SSAs), a conservation-focused method of collecting biological data about a species that is considered for listing under the ESA to help those making recommendations determine if listing is warranted. She works on species from many different taxa across the United States. One barrier to writing effective, science based SSAs is the lack of data available to scientists and policymakers about rare species, due in part to insufficient manpower for collecting baseline information and lack of access to habitats on private lands. The goal of McFarland’s presentation at the Expo was to demystify the ESA process for landowners and create awareness about how private lands can significantly contribute to the conversation.

Landowner Connection

McFarland shared that while it can be assumed those who attended her talk were already interested in some aspects of wildlife conservation or management, landowners all have very different perspectives, values, and focus areas. One woman she spoke to was interested in establishing a conservation easement on her property, and others were focused on wildlife tax valuations. Regardless of the reason a landowner is approaching the idea of wildlife conservation, they can make significant contributions to science and inform their own agricultural practices or economic endeavors through thoughtful land stewardship. We enjoy talking with landowners at events like the Houston Rodeo so we can meet them where they are and learn about their interests and drivers. Many times, we find that common land uses like ranching and farming are compatible with, and even improved by, wildlife habitat conservation practices. Further, healthy landscapes often benefit all Texans by providing clean air and water, improving biodiversity, and driving ecotourism.

Key Takeaways for Land Stewards

Integrating citizen science and various methods of data collection can help inform time-sensitive policy decisions, or, simply, conservation decisions for any flora or fauna. Again, one of the most important aspects of our work is sharing conservation knowledge and experiences with landowners and policymakers, but there’s an incredible return on investment where we can elevate conversations with citizen scientists who contribute immensely to scientific progress regarding distribution and biological data for data-deficient species, especially in private land states. We’re proud to acknowledge those citizen-led partnerships and the relationships we gain with private landowners.

Access to private land is an honor and privilege for our researchers who have built rigorous protocols to preserve the privacy of landowners and leave their land pristine. McFarland shared how much scientists can learn about a species when they can immerse themselves in their habitats, and that they often discover species where they wouldn’t expect to find them. Finding these hidden hubs of rare species is great news for everyone—it can potentially prevent a species from becoming petitioned for listing under the ESA and prevent any further regulation for the landowner.

As McFarland puts it, land stewards don’t have to do this alone, and much of what we can do in collaboration benefits everyone. At the end of the day, the ESA is just a policy and the people making decisions are just ordinary people. Part of demystifying the ESA is helping landowners realize that they are the key to furthering wildlife conservation in Texas, and that building relationships with scientists, researchers, and educators can be a rewarding experience. Every day we are grateful to find new ways to build relationships and turn their interests and passions for the land into viable collaborations for wildlife conservation.


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