An independent study released recently calls efforts to protect threatened and endangered species on private lands near Fort Hood in Texas "a successful model."

The extensive outside review of the three-year "proof-of-concept" for the Recovery Credit System for Fort Hood was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The endangered species project, administered by the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources, is a partnership among the U.S. Department of Defense, Texas A&M AgriLife, the Environmental Defense Fund and private landowners.

"This evaluation is a very good verdict for the effectiveness of this tool," said Neal Wilkins, Ph.D., the institute's director. "It is gratifying to see that the wildlife experts who completed this peer review confirm that we are managing an effective program."

Wilkins noted that the team of reviewers also suggested several ideas that could be added to enhance the ongoing project.

Basically, the Recovery Credit System enables a federal agency conducting an activity that might harm a species to assure an activity that benefits the species is being performed elsewhere. In this case, landowners in a six-county area around the Fort Hood Army post received a monetary benefit plus assistance from the institute's team of Texas AgriLife Research scientists and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service to conserve wildlife habitat, especially for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. This was necessary because army operations disruptive to the birds' habitat would have to stop.

"The Recovery Credit System helps maintain not only the readiness of our armed forces, but it will help strengthen the Central Texas economy by increasing the training capacity on the post," Wilkins said.

The golden-cheeked warbler was listed as an endangered species in 1992 due primarily to loss of mature oak-juniper woodlands in Central Texas, Wilkins noted, adding that "since the species was listed, there have been numerous attempts to persuade private ranchers to manage and conserve habitats for the species."

The evaluation concluded the recovery credit system appears to be a successful model for accomplishing that goal, while at the same time relieving constraints on military training.

Leadership for the development of the recovery credit system was first provided by Texas Comptroller Susan Combs when she was Texas Agriculture Commissioner.

"She brought together groups from both the agriculture and conservation community to work with state and federal agencies in developing this conservation tool. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department as well as USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service were closely involved in the program," Wilkins said. "Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples has continued to support the effort and was instrumental in leading groups toward finalizing the model."

The evaluation concluded that the Recovery Credit System concept is valid on a variety of points including that credits given to the military base were determined by weighing both conservation of habitat and wildlife management plans of the neighboring landowners who participate in the program. The landowners participate in cost-share efforts and are chosen for the program through a competitive, reverse auction bid process. Also, compliance and effectiveness monitoring is required of landowners in the program system.

The review, conducted by Robertson Consulting Group Inc., compared the Recovery Credit System against four other wildlife conservation incentive programs.

"The model provided important contributions to both conservation and to the military: working toward species recovery, extending conservation beyond the boundaries of the installation by engaging private landowners, formalizing a market-based tool for trading credits, and providing an additional method for removing restrictions on training," the report reads.

In their report, the consultants suggested the system could be improved by adding more emphasis on additional activities on the enrolled land that could enhance habitat and contribute to recovery of the warbler. And in noting that the recovery system would be appropriate for use in other areas, the team said, "future applications...should collect baseline data on conservation measures so that the net benefit can be assessed."

For more information about the Recovery Credit System, see http://rcs.tamu.edu.

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