Commentary: Endangered Species Act is a powerful regulatory driver

What this week’s wildlife delistings can teach President Trump and Congress about conservation

The conservation community has had little cause for celebration since the Trump administration and a handful of congressional leaders have made it their mission to undermine science-based environmental policies and guidance.

From several proposed House bills that would weaken the scientific rigor of the Endangered Species Act, to recent administrative attempts to revise bipartisan plans for the imperiled greater sage-grouse, it’s hard to imagine there could be any wildlife wins to celebrate this Endangered Species Day. However, surprisingly, there are.

UPDATE: Rare Central Texas songbird to fly off endangered species list.

Thanks to previously laid groundwork, two species have been removed from the endangered species list this week. These delistings are cause for cautious celebration, and can also provide important and timely education to policymakers of what successful, collaborative conservation looks like.

As of today, the final delisting rule for the lesser long-nosed bat will be effective. Originally listed as an endangered species 30 years ago, when there were fewer than 1,000 bats in existence, the lesser long-nosed bat has since rebounded to an estimated 200,000 bats across the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.

I celebrated the bat’s delisting pre-emptively this month on Cinco de Mayo, since the species’ recovery was due in large part to efforts of the Mexican tequila industry.

RELATED: Susan Combs once cited endangered species to protect her own land.

One of only three nectar-feeding bat species in the U.S., the lesser long-nosed bat provides uniquely valuable ecosystem services through bat pollination and the dispersal of fruit seeds, including for agave plants used in tequila production.

Recognizing the threats that some of the tequila industry’s activities were having on the bat – namely the cutting of agave stalks before the plants could bloom and bats could nectar on them – industry leaders began working with agave farmers and conservation groups to implement bat-friendly practices. By allowing just 5 percent of agave plants to bloom, agave farms were able to restore important feeding habitat for the bat and establish a certification for bat-friendly tequila.

This conservation success story is somewhat unique in that it can make us all feel a bit better about drinking margaritas (most wildlife recovery efforts unfortunately do not have this side effect). But it’s not a one-off success.

Every region of this country – even every state – has its own wildlife success stories just like it.

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In Texas, it was the ranching community that stepped up to save a delicate songbird originally listed as endangered in 1987. This week, the black-capped vireo was delisted, sending a clear signal that collaborative approaches to conservation, when combined with incentives, are tremendously powerful tools for species recovery.

For ranchers in Texas, it was the innovation of Safe Harbor agreements that provided much-needed regulatory assurances to those who agreed to adopt conservation practices in support of the endangered bird that they would not face future land use restrictions.

The Safe Harbor agreements and the relationships built between the Texas ranching and conservation communities have had lasting benefits to the recovery of endangered wildlife. Many of the same Texas ranchers that helped recover the black-capped vireo have since participated in other conservation programs, including a market-based program for the monarch butterfly that launched earlier this year.

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Whether it’s a bat, a bird or a butterfly, the Endangered Species Act is a powerful regulatory driver of conservation partnerships and innovations.

Friday, May 18 is Endangered Species Day — a day to celebrate conservation efforts that protect our nation’s endangered species and their habitats. Clearly these efforts are paying off. It’s imperative that the administration and congressional leaders acknowledge these success stories and use the lessons learned from them to design and implement bipartisan policies and funding mechanisms that will usher in an era of even more success.

Holst is associate vice president of working lands at Environmental Defense Fund.

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