This issue brief reports on the mechanics of and lessons learned from a conservation incentive program focused on the gopher tortoise. Its aim is to inform the successful design and implementation of other candidate programs emerging throughout the southern forests and greater United States.

Executive Summary

  • Market-based mechanisms focused on candidate species conservation, also known as pre-compliance conservation, can provide preemptive and cost-effective interventions prior to a species becoming listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
  • To advance candidate conservation incentive programs, the World Resources Institute (WRI) is working with its partners to build demand, supply, and transactional infrastructure through a pilot initiative in the nonfederally listed range of the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) in the southern forests of the United States.
  • This innovative approach strives to create a scalable, voluntary, and science-based marketplace where conservation credits can be bought and sold prior to the enactment of a regulatory requirement, resulting in additional acres of southeastern forests being managed for habitat and species conservation.
  • Through this pilot initiative, landowners with southern pine forests capable of supporting healthy populations of the imperiled gopher tortoise can receive payments to conserve and manage their forests. These payments and stewardship activities are designed to offset habitat disturbance elsewhere and may help preclude the species from becoming listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA.
  • A candidate conservation marketplace may allow federal and private project developers to manage their environmental risk by investing in conservation on private lands in return for regulatory certainty from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). This process can help these stakeholders avoid the potential for costly project development delays and litigation since it front-loads much of the ESA review process and gives entities greater regulatory certainty.
  • Interest in candidate conservation incentive programs is rapidly growing in the private, public, and nongovernmental organization sectors as changes in land use across the country spark new challenges in balancing ecosystem management with residential and commercial development, national security, energy infrastructure, and climate change.