On May 18th, the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University hosted a workshop to discuss cooperative conservation — ways to help conserve endangered species and their habitats through collaboration between private landowners, conservation groups, and government agencies.
The launch group meeting brought together experts with a diversity of perspectives and hands-on experience, including private landowners, university-extension officials, industry experts, interested students, and professors in natural resources and economics.
Participants gathered on the campus of Utah State University to explore cooperative extension through land-grant universities as a mechanism for better engaging private landowners and thus achieving better conservation outcomes.
Participants discussed how current conservation policy in the U.S. is primarily punitive instead of collaborative. One example shared by Brian Seasholes, an environmental policy expert in attendance, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was enacted to protect endangered and threatened species, yet it often creates conflict surrounding the property rights of private landowners through its top-down, punitive approach. Because many endangered species rely on private property for their habitat, he said, engaging landowners in the conservation of endangered species is crucial.
“Landowners are the linchpin [of endangered species conservation],” said Seasholes.
A key theme emerged from the launch group meeting discussion. Several participants emphasized the importance of treating landowners as partners in conservation efforts rather than obstacles or opponents. Jay Tanner, a rancher in northwestern Utah, spoke from his own experience managing land and working to conserve species. “If landowners are not involved, the process loses a lot of its validity,” said Tanner.
Many of the participants in the Cooperative Extension & Endangered Species Conservation Launch Group Meeting are pioneers in engaging landowners to achieve positive conservation outcomes.
Terry Messmer is an Extension Wildlife Specialist in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. Messmer is also Director of the Utah Community-Based Conservation Program, a group that has put cooperative conservation into action and successfully worked to keep the greater sage-grouse from becoming endangered.
As part of his USU Extension work, Dr. Messmer works with landowners, consulting with them on methods for protecting wildlife and balancing those protections with other uses of the land. Instead of creating conflict between private landowners and public officials, these in-person consultations provide opportunities for collaboration.
Chad Ellis, Industry Relations and Stewardship Manager at the Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma, also participated in the launch group meeting. The Noble Research Institute sends teams of experts to work with agricultural producers to help them improve their agricultural practices. Noble’s diverse staff of scientists, consultants, economists, and others work with farmers and ranchers at all levels to help them both improve their businesses and increase careful stewardship of their lands.
The Cooperative Extension & Endangered Species Conservation Launch Group Meeting was just the first step in bringing together experts to explore the potential of university-based cooperative extension as well as cooperative conservation more broadly.
As part of his academic research, Dwayne Elmore, a professor of Wildlife Management at Oklahoma State University, conducts extensive surveys of private landowners to understand the factors that affect their willingness to engage in conservation efforts. He highlighted survey results showing that private landowners prefer to work with organizations like university extension offices, the Farm Bureau, and other Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) rather than officials from regulatory agencies. He emphasized that private landowners value science-based, non-regulatory, and local solutions to conservation issues that they face.
Elmore’s landowner surveys also shed light on the need for more cooperative approaches to conservation on private lands. Most of the rural and agricultural landowners he surveyed agreed that the original intent of the ESA is good, but also agreed that the Act threatens property rights and has likely been misused.