On December 29th, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a landmark agreement to save five endangered birds in Hawaii that could serve as a national model for helping private farmers and ranchers recover endangered species. The Hawaii agreement marks the first time that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and local Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Councils are becoming nationwide leaders in helping private landowners restore endangered species. The draft agreement appears in today's volume of the Federal Register.
Under the Safe Harbor agreement, private landowners who are working with the USDA will receive assurances that future land use requirements will not be imposed because of their conservation efforts. To be eligible, landowners must be enrolled in a USDA Farm Bill Conservation Program and making improvements to wetlands or habitat benefiting any of five endangered birds: Hawaiian Goose (Nene), Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Moorhen, Hawaiian Coot, and Hawaiian Stilt.
"Hawaii has a long history of using Safe Harbor agreements, but this one is really innovative and should be repeated everywhere across the country where private farms and ranches can provide habitat for endangered species with USDA's help," said Michael Bean, a leading authority on the Endangered Species Act and chair of Wildlife program at Environmental Defense, a leading national nonprofit group that worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other partners to create the first Safe Harbor agreement more than a decade ago.
The agreement will take effect after a public comment period and approval by the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. USDA staff will help restore habitat and RC&D Councils will administer individual landowner agreements. State and federal wildlife agencies will provide their endangered species expertise.
"The USDA spends $4 billion a year on conservation," said Timothy Male, PhD., senior ecologist at Environmental Defense. "Finding ways to direct USDA dollars toward endangered species recovery is incredibly important and that's exactly what agencies in Hawaii have figured out."
"Lots of farmers and ranchers want to help save endangered species, but they are afraid the government will punish them for doing so," said Jim Greenwell, Hawaii rancher and Past President of the Hawaii Cattlemen's Council. "This agreement could encourage more cooperative conservation across Hawaii."
Nationally, Safe Harbor agreements have already been struck with several hundred landowners on approximately four million acres of land nationwide. Safe Harbor agreements were responsible for the reintroduction of the Hawaiian goose (the state's official bird) to the island of Molokai, after an absence of more than two centuries, and the return of the northern aplomado falcon, North America's rarest falcon, as a breeding bird in Texas after an absence of several decades.
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