The Wildlife Conservation Initiative: Building a Better Mouse Trap

The Wildlife Conservation Initiative: Building a Better Mouse Trap

The Wildlife Conservation Initiative (WCI) is a comprehensive conservation partnership between the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI) designed to conserve fish and wildlife species in private working forests. The overarching WCI goal is simple: to conserve common, at-risk, and listed species through active forest management on private working forests while also providing regulatory certainty for the landowners.

Red Hills Salamander

A federally threatened Red Hills salamander (Phaeognathus hubrichti) found at a WCI/NAFO property. This species is only known to occur in southern Alabama, where it is the official state amphibian.

Darren Miller, NCASI

NAFO plays a crucial role in supporting and implementing the WCI, as its member organizations collectively own and manage millions of acres of forest lands that are vital to the survival of many threatened and endangered species. In fact, private working forests are an important conservation tool, with more than 46 million acres of private working forests located in 34 states. Prior to the creation of WCI, many of these private forest owners and NAFO members had already voluntarily adopted good forestry conservation practices by submitting to an independent, third-party verification process that certify their forestry practices meet the minimum standards to manage their forests sustainably. So, they are no strangers to voluntary conservation actions on private lands.

The partnership between the WCI and NAFO is a natural fit, as both organizations prioritize the health and wellbeing of the nation’s forests and their inhabitants. NAFO members understand that responsible forest management practices contribute significantly to the conservation of sensitive wildlife and fish species. In turn, the WCI provides valuable resources, research, and support to help these forest owners maintain healthy ecosystems on their lands. Collectively, the WCI partners collaborate to employ science-based approaches, adaptive management techniques, and active partnerships to ensure the survival of at-risk species and the overall health of the nation's forests.

To accomplish their Mission, the WCI focuses on several key strategies to protect and restore habitats for these species:

  1. Science-Based Conservation: The WCI uses the best available science to identify key habitats and species in need of protection. This information guides the development of targeted conservation strategies that are both effective and efficient.
  2. Collaborative Partnerships: The WCI fosters collaboration among various stakeholders, including private landowners, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and academic institutions. This ensures that resources and expertise are leveraged to their fullest potential in the pursuit of shared conservation goals.
  3. Adaptive Management: The WCI encourages forest owners and managers to use adaptive management techniques, which involve monitoring the results of conservation efforts and adjusting strategies accordingly. This approach allows for continuous learning and improvement, increasing the likelihood of long-term conservation successes.
  4. Education and Outreach: The WCI actively promotes education and outreach efforts to inform the public and policymakers about the importance of wildlife conservation, and the crucial role that private forest owners play in achieving these goals.
  5. Incentive Programs: The WCI supports the development of financial incentive programs to encourage private landowners to implement conservation measures on their properties. These incentives may come in the form of grants, cost-sharing agreements, or tax breaks.

Currently, the WCI has ongoing conservation projects in every USFWS region where NAFO members own or manage significant acres of forest land (6 of 8 USFWS regions). In addition to the conservation benefits created by the partnership, these projects also serve to demonstrate the value of active forest management as a wildlife conservation tool. Some examples of these projects include the following:

Region 1

  • Assessing pollinator biodiversity across different forested landscapes.
  • Investigating plant pollinator networks and diets of forest carnivores.
  • Understanding how red tree voles use younger forests.

Region 2

  • Surveying at-risk mussel populations in watersheds surrounded by working forests.
  • Surveying native bumble bees and long­horned bees on forested landscapes.

Region 3

  • Understanding conservation benefits of sustainable forest management on wood turtles.

Region 4

  • Understanding how gopher tortoises use open canopy forests.
  • Documenting the direct link between sustainably managed forests and biodiversity at a landscape scale.
  • Identify key stopover areas for migratory birds in the Eastern U.S.

Region 5

  • Understanding conservation benefits of sustainable forest management on wood turtles.
  • Assessing management strategies for conservation of at-risk bird species.
  • Evaluating the status and distribution of the Diana fritillary.
  • Identify key stopover areas for migratory birds in the Eastern U.S.

Region 8

  • Cataloguing biodiversity of pollinators following wildfires.
  • Investigating plant pollinator networks and diets of forest carnivores.
  • Evaluating the status and distribution of at-risk western pond turtle.

The WCI currently has 14 conservation projects underway, with several more planned. These research projects demonstrate how voluntary, collaborative conservation on private working forests can succeed as an alternative to regulation and produce species conservation at scale. At a high level, the work performed by the WCI partners promotes cooperation and collaboration among its partners; it creates consistency as a USFWS agency-wide initiative; and it encourages the exploration of proactive, voluntary conservation efforts before regulatory action is warranted. On the ground, the WCI effort supports research into how active forest management impacts species conservation; it facilitates voluntary access agreements to private forests for public and private research; and it provides the USFWS with better data and resources which feed directly into ongoing conservation work.

The WCI, which began as individual, regional collaborations, has now developed into a national model for engaging forest owners, federal and state agencies, and stakeholders in effective species conservation. Recently, President Biden announced several new major actions to conserve and restore lands and waters across the nation. The MOU that was signed at the White House Conservation in Action Summit on March 21, 2023, officially formalizes the WCI as a programmatic partnership for voluntary and proactive collaboration benefitting common, at risk, threatened, and endangered species. In short, the MOU codifies the value of active forest management in private working forests as a powerful conservation tool.

Photo Credit
Darren Miller, NCASI
May 15, 2023