A team of ecologists at Utah State University has found that the current extent of protected areas in the United States is not enough to prevent the loss of many endangered species. One major obstacle is the limited availability of public land, and the researchers suggest that the support of private land owners is key for protecting the country’s endangered wildlife.
Based on computer models, the team determined that out of 159 endangered mammal, bird, reptile and, amphibian species, only 21 are sufficiently supported by existing protected areas in the U.S.
“We are not suggesting that protected areas are doing a bad job, what we are suggesting is that there are many opportunities to increase protection,” said study co-author Professor Edward Hammill.
Converting public land to protected areas comes along with many challenges, including unfavorable political climates.
“There has been a huge political push in the USA to reduce protected areas such as National Monuments,” said study co-author Professor Trisha Atwood. “However, our results suggest that we not only need to increase the spatial coverage of protected areas in the USA, but we also need to ensure that we are protecting the places that contain critical habitat for endangered species.”
According to the study, even if all public lands became protected areas, more than half of the at-risk species in the country would still be in danger of extinction. In Texas, for example, 95 percent of the land is privately owned.
The researchers see great opportunity in the creation of conservation easements on private land. Conservation easements are voluntary, legal agreements that restrict future development on private land. The land owners retain their property rights and receive tax credits in exchange for conservation assistance.
The study revealed that with the help of private land owners, the United States has the capacity to protect 100 percent of endangered species.
“It is unlikely that adequate conservation of endangered species will be achieved by increasing federal protected areas,” said Professor Hammill. “Our research highlights that private land owners represent an alternative route to achieving conservation goals.”
“These findings give me hope that we can still make a change for the better,” said Professor Atwood. “But, if we are going to win the fight against extinction we are going to need the help of private land owners.”
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.