What is the Wyoming Conservation Exchange?
The Wyoming Conservation Exchange (WCE) is an innovative way to provide private-market financial incentives to private landholders for engaging in conservation activities that might not otherwise be undertaken or continued. (The WCE is currently focused on Greater sage-grouse habitat; other ecosystem services can be added in the future.) Landowners are the “sellers” in the WCE, by implementing practices on their land to maintain or enhance provision of high-quality sage-grouse habitat that generate measurable outcomes. The “buyers” in the WCE are, for example, energy companies seeking off-site mitigation for their energy-development activities.
The WCE creates profitable opportunities for private and public landowners and land managers to conserve and restore ecosystem services across Wyoming. The WCE consists of habitat quantification and management tools, an accounting system, and an adaptive management process to track measurable outcomes and facilitate coordination among the conservation and mitigation activities of multiple plans and policies throughout Wyoming.
By engaging a broader pool of landowners and facilitating interactions between those who can supply habitat and those who have a demand for high quality habitat, the WCE will help to ensure that the habitat conservation and mitigation needs of Wyoming can be met, in combination with more traditional tools such as conservation easements and banks. The WCE builds on the conceptual and technical underpinnings of the conservation banking approach and successful conservation exchanges that are being created and implemented around the country.
Why is the Wyoming Conservation Exchange focused on Greater sage-grouse habitat?
Alteration and degradation of sagebrush habitat nationwide has reduced the amount of viable habitat for obligate species such as the sage-grouse. The Greater sage-grouse now occupies approximately 56 percent of its historic range (FWS 2013). Wyoming is home to approximately one-third of the entire sage-grouse population. The expansion of oil and natural gas facilities and other land use changes in Wyoming have the potential for further major impact on sagebrush habitat.
The Greater sage-grouse is a candidate species under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that there is sufficient scientific evidence to warrant a listing for the Greater sage-grouse but it has been precluded from doing so because other, higher priority species take precedence (USFWS 2012). The UWFWS has announced that it will make a listing decision on the Greater sage-grouse in September 2015 (BLM 2011). A listing under the ESA would result in major limitations on many human activities in Wyoming and elsewhere in the Greater sage-grouse range. In 2008, the Wyoming Governor issued an Executive Order establishing a core area policy to conserve Greater sage-grouse in critical habitat areas. In 2011, Governor Matt Mead extended the policy (Wyoming Governor’s Office, 2011).
Innovative solutions that reduce the costs of reclamation and restoration and that engage private landowners are needed, if mitigation and conservation efforts to maintain and enhance Greater sage-grouse habitat are to be effectively implemented.
How does the Wyoming Conservation Exchange work?
The Wyoming Conservation Exchange provides a performance-based mechanism for environmental impact mitigation and investment in conservation. The Exchange uses a standardized science-based conservation “credit” to quantify conservation benefits. A key component of the overall infrastructure for the Exchange is the habitat quantification approach, which measures habitat functionality on a project site and in the context of the surrounding area. Unlike most mitigation efforts, the Exchange incorporates both the quantity and quality of environmental impact and uplift using this habitat quantification approach.
An Exchange Administrator will manage the day-to-day operations of the Exchange, including facilitating and overseeing all credit generation and transaction activities. The Exchange Administrator helps to connect Credit Buyers (entities that purchase credits for compensatory mitigation or to meet conservation objectives) and Credit Developers (landowners or land managers who produce, register, or sell credits through the Exchange). The Exchange Administrator also ensures consistency and transparency, issues credits, and reports results to all relevant Regulators. A formal stakeholder group – known as the Advisory Group – will include representatives from conservation interests, industry, agriculture, and government, and is responsible for overseeing the overall operations of the Exchange and making strategic management decisions.
What is the current status of the Wyoming Conservation Exchange?
In May 2014, the Upper Green River Conservation Exchange (a regional affiliate of the WCE based in the Upper Green River Basin) submitted an application to the USFWS under the conservation banking review process. Updated documents were submitted in December 2014 (see documents here). If the application is approved, conservation undertaken through the UGRCE to protect Greater sage-grouse habitat will be recognized by USFWS, and participants could seek regulatory assurances to accompany the purchase of credits. USFWS is scheduled to make a decision on whether to list the Greater sage-grouse in 2015. The presence of operational conservation exchanges in Wyoming may help influence the listing decision.
WCE protocols and the Greater sage-grouse habitat quantification tool are in the final stages of development. This development is occurring in conjunction with the UGRCE conservation banking review process, as well as in consultation with stakeholders and other state and federal land management agencies.