Banking to Save Endangered Species
Making the ESA work for both people and the endangered species it was passed to protect
By Robert Linggi, Intern, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sacramento Field Office
At its peak, the habitat of the San Joaquin kit fox stretched from Berkeley to Bakersfield, California. However, oil exploration, invasive species, predation, wind turbines, agricultural practices and grazing have contributed to the degradation of the kit fox's habitat, causing it to become endangered.
One of the ways the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office (SFWO) and private citizens are partnering to help the kit fox fight back is by creating 3,280 acres of prime habitat in conservation banks.
Conservation banks allow landowners and private citizens to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered wildlife by streamlining the legal process and providing financial incentive.
The SFWO leads the nation in conservation banking and oversees more banks than any other office in the country with 40 banks. The banks range in size (from 10-5,000 acres) and in species diversity.
Endangered species like the giant gartner snake, California tiger salamander and many vernal pool species are among the 19 species of plants and animals currently protected by conservation banks set up by the SFWO.
Ken Sanchez, Assistant Field Supervisor, Endangered Species, SFWO, said this is because conservation banks are the best response to the complex issue of habitat loss in California for threatened and endangered spices.
“I think SFWO's support [for conservation banking] is a response to solving a problem,” he said. “In California, you see more development than in most areas of the country. The development is habitat loss, and the most reasonable way to comply with the law and respond to that is to replace that habitat with conservation or restoration.”
SFWO is busy, with new conservation banks being formed all the time, and many in the system yet to be certified.
Three recent banks include the 663 acre Porter Ranch mitigation bank near Oroville, the 377 acre Meridian Ranch mitigation bank in Butte County and the 232 acre Sycamore Creek conservation bank in Chico. These three banks were created to conserve a combination of endangered vernal pool fairy shrimp, tadpole shrimp, conservancy fairy shrimp, and Butte County meadowfoam.
Vernal pools, with their shallow waters, small green hills and rolling grasslands are a declining feature in the California landscape. Before California was as developed as it is today, vernal pool habitats, such as those protected in these banks, were more common. However, as more land was needed for building, sensitive vernal pools were impacted. Conservation banking is an important tool for preserving them and the valuable wildlife they hold.
Besides benefiting endangered species, conservation banks are good for the public because they allow developers to streamline the building process.
SFWO remains dedicated to partnering for conservation, and is is continually working with private landowners to create new banks. Sacramento Municipal Utility District and SFWO are currently working together to set up a 1,200 acre nature preserve to protect endangered California tiger salamanders, vernal pool fairy shrimp and vernal pool tadpole shrimp; as well as create new habitat for them.
Conservation banking also helps landowners keep their farms and ranches traditional by keeping land undeveloped and in family hands.
“You put a conservation easement on (land) and it ensures to the farmer and rancher that after many years when he or she is gone, the land is going to still be used for ranching and grazing, and they like that idea,” Sacramento office biologist Dwight Harvey said. “They don't want to turn it into a Wal-Mart or a housing development. To them it's a matter of family pride and responsibility.”
Landowner Marden Wilbur owns the Fitzgerald Ranch where a conservation bank for vernal pool fairy shrimp is located. He said conservation banking worked best for him.
“So far it's been positive,” said Marden. “It's paying off.”
Landowners who think conservation banking might be right for them need not be turned off by the technical aspect. The Sacramento office is dedicated to working with landowners and other agencies and their laws to make the conservation banking process thrive.
That is Valerie Layne's job as Conservation Banking Coordinator and Senior Biologist. She said possible conservation bank owners shouldn't worry about the process but instead focus on the environmental and financial benefits banks could provide.
Layne gave a tip to landowners. "Find a consultant who is experienced in the process. It can make it go a lot faster and smoother if they know what they're doing." SFWO can give information on consultants it has worked with in the past and a list is available on our website at www.fws.gov/sacramento.
Support for conservation banking is growing at the national level as well.
California is the leader nationally with other states currently preferring alternatives to conservation banking.
Sanchez said other states may not see as much habitat loss, and that habitat lost is often not replaced as it is in California. However, he said as more species are listed as endangered, as more habitat gets developed and as more environmental groups question how the Endangered Species Act is implemented, conservation banking will spread more rapidly to other states. “At the end of the day conservation banking is good for endangered species, good for landowners and good for developers.”
Harvey said conserving species, especially as a biologist, is rewarding because he sees the fruits of his labor when he sees a bank transform into a haven for wildlife and birds. “What's amazing to me is it once was habitat a long, long time ago, then it wasn't, and now it is again.”