How to bring back an endangered species?

Yesterday the Heritage Newspapers in southern Wisconsin published a story about the amazing turnaround of the striking Kirtland’s warbler. The author listed the on-the-ground actions that led to the success and some of the partners involved.

What was not discussed was the relationships that were essential to this success. Friendships and trust formed and nurtured over the past forty years. It is very likely that private landowners, fire departments, health officials, timber companies, state and federal biologists and land managers, and others listened to each other’s hopes and concerns about a path forward.

Adaptive challenges like species recovery won’t be solved with more data alone. What is absolutely essential is leadership from the people involved because solutions are found through our interactions with others. These interactions over time form relationships. Relationships are incubators of trust. And trust is necessary if we’re asked to give up something we hold dear for the greater good.

Want to bring back an endangered species? I would suggest we work harder to objectively hear all views and let the best collaborative idea win. Doing so will require spending less on data collection and more on building trust. What do you think?


About cognizantfox

Cognizantfox has served his country over twenty-five years doing the unselfish, noble work of conserving America's natural heritage.
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25 Responses to How to bring back an endangered species?

  1. Heather Abbey says:

    Great article! I have been thinking a lot about this during the last few weeks and in particular, last night, so it is great to see that others are thinking along the same lines. I think environmental responsibility and awareness needs to begin with social change. People need to see why it is important in their lives and how it affects them directly… People have to want to work together toward these goals for the greater good of themselves, their family, and society. Conversations need to happen, community-building needs to happen, then things will truly start to change for the better. 🙂

  2. Jimmy says:

    Nice to get your response Heather. It reminded me of the power of telling stories about people and nature. Think of the power of A Sand County Almanac and other stories has wielded to connect with nature and with each other. Through that connection there is trust.

    • David Eisenhauer says:

      Wow, I agree with both you and Heather. Connecting with people on the landscape and finding common ground to tell the conservation story is critical.

  3. furman85 says:


    Thanks for your post! I agree with your seminal point, that we should be more inclusive and favor collaborative efforts. I appreciate that you’ve brought to light that we tend to overshadow successful partnerships. Much of our communication is framed around the species (product) rather than the partnerships (process). I believe we should have an open dialogue about the “good, bad, & ugly” of partnerships/collaborations. We should facilitate the processes that yield success while being transparent about how to overcome quagmires and divergent opinions.

    Now about “data”……

    We’ve been inconsistent from a “data” standpoint. Further, I believe that too much focus is placed on listing rather than recovery. We’ve excelled at recovery/delisting when a species is persecuted (shot or poisoned), but we leave much to be desired for the habitat-limited species. Many recovery plans fail to identify limiting factors, articulate deliberate objectives, include comprehensive design, or provide guidance for delivery. Moreover, in many cases, the recovery teams are composed of bureaucrats, administrators, and scientists. The people who perform implementation (land managers, law enforcement, and partners) are typically not included and I believe this creates a further disconnect from planning to implementation.

    I would be criminal of me if I did do mention the good examples of recovery planning (loggerhead sea turtle, RCW, LA black bear, etc). I know there are many more that we can highlight. Let’s learn from those!

    To piggy-back off of Jimmy: Recovery starts with people & relationships. Let’s develop relationships through the planning process. Let’s be inclusive of all stakeholders, garner buy-in, and focus on the desired outcomes (Sage grouse initiative for example). Let’s identify the limiting factors, constraints, create SMART objectives, perform robust design and delivery conservation.

    • Jimmy says:

      Good points here furman85. Thank you for your comments. The quagmires and divergent opinions you mention do seem to live on and on so turning an existing negative relationship into a positive one is very difficult. Perhaps Hans and Annamarie Bleiker’s advice to public employees engaging with the public on controversial issues is helpful. Demonstrate that: 1. There really is a problem (here is where data is important); 2. We are the right entity to address it. If we don’t, we’re not doing what we are paid to do; 3. We really, really listen; and 4. We show through our verbal and non-verbal actions that we really do care.

  4. Joanna says:

    Why does improving the collaborative process have to be at the expense of data collection? Data collection establishes baselines, keeps a critical pulse on our efforts, and guides us in future decisions, but in and of itself, data does not achieve buy-in. Decisions made without buy-in of all involved have a very low success rate.

    Buy-in is usually achieved by a “spark-plug” leader, who is more focused on the process of buy-in rather than the outcome itself. What follows after a well facilitated process of all involved is almost always a winning decision. Good leadership and facilitation skills are critical.

    Another example of a successful collaborative effort includes the Archie Carr Working Group established in the late 1990’s to offer a perpetual collaborative effort for the beaches of the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s Atlantic coast…the most important nesting beaches for green turtles in the US and most important nesting beaches in the Western Hemisphere for loggerheads.

    • Jimmy says:

      Excellent observations Joanna. Thanks so much for taking the time to share. To your point about facilitation, does the conservation community have adequate facilitation capacities? Your comment about successful decisions reminds me of something said by U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, “The more different viewpoints you can bring to bear on a problem, the more robust your solution is going to be and the broader base of support you will have.” His point supports the view that solutions are found through our interactions and relationships with others, and the more the better.

      • Joanna says:

        Bingo Jimmy! No, the conservation community does not have adequate facilitation capacities, and as a trained facilitator in the conservation community it frustrates me to no end. I pursued facilitation as an area to build skills for my current conservation job and I am a certified facilitator. With these skills, I have moved mountains on some of my projects, but most of the time I have to sit around and watch my colleagues make decisions without sound process.

        Those in the conservation community (in my circles) are not using facilitation in their decision making processes, and they are achieving less success as a result. They think that making a good decision involves holding a meeting and having everyone there while the decision is made. They just don’t understand. I try to help where I can, but mostly I find resistance to facilitation as a “silly, warm and fuzzy” process, which it is not. It’s extremely effective and I truly believe that we need to focus on training more conservation professionals in facilitation.

        And as difficult as it may seem for some and even for very complex situations, Thad Allen is correct. Love that quote…thanks for sharing it!

  5. Doug says:

    Being really close to the Kirtland’s project here in Wisconsin, I can’t help but think you’ve nailed it. Good science should be based on rigorous defensible study designs. Most importantly when it provides useful information to decision makers. i have seen way too many proposals to hang this transmitter on this species or that. But too often when pressed for the ways this data will inform decisons, researchers are often hard pressed to come up with any response. Joanna’s correct in that improving the collaborative process and good data collection aren’t necessarily diametrically opposed. Howeve, I am more convinced every day that our data collection must be more effective than it is efficient.

    OK now I can argue the other point. I will say also from personal experience that the collaborative process must be applied like any other tool to a recovery plan. Too often i have seen sound science sacrificed or compromised in the name of partnerships. It saddens me to see the agency who should be leading these efforts too often take a back seat to so called/self created experts. I live this every day and must continually push pull and cajole our agency back to the leadership role it way too often abdicates.

    • Jimmy says:

      Nice to get your post Doug. I like how you presented both sides of the coin of real life examples. It’s not easy to think that way, and it’s not easy to post your thoughts especially ones that might be perceived as critical of others. Regarding the compromises, I hope you consider having courageous conversations with the right people. Maybe you do and that’s what brings folks back to where you believe they ought to be. I believe we exhibit leadership when we are cognizant of the fact that we each have our own distorted version of reality – some more distorted than others! Perhaps, when we start talking and combining our individual realities the true reality may emerge.

  6. Ginger says:

    Beware of the human brain…it doesn’t value data in the decision making process.

    I see Doug’s point about adherence to scientific principles and agency leadership, but I would argue that agencies have rarely moved society (nor do they start social movements by partnering with corporate interests, of course). The phrase “buy-in” used before a collaborative effort is a cue that someone is convinced they already have the right answer, no matter what the stakeholders have to say. Is coersion by a persuasive facilitator equal to a solution developed by a broad stakeholder community that has built trust over time?

    In the field of private lands conservation, many of our agency efforts represent a perceived loss to an affected community with values that do not match those of the agency. Does a solution of this sort ever produce enduring results? (Keeps me up at night…) How does this extend to other agencies that regulate or serve communities? Hmm.

    • Jimmy says:

      Great you could join the conversation Ginger! Thank you for your input! Agencies have come a long way from the old days of command and control. We now seek consensus before moving ahead. How quickly we come to it is dependent upon many factors. I believe we all agree an effective facilitator will facilitate, not coerce, consensus among a group with different opinions. Consensus is agreeing to go along, to compromise, for the greater good. Some people will describe the key ingredient for consensus is buy-in to the proposed solution.

  7. Deborah says:

    Ginger, your comment about buy in reminded me of a major learning moment in my life. Many years ago I was talking to a Senator’s staffer and actually said in my youth and naïveté that if I could just educate the ranchers, they wouldn’t be against endangered species or the refuge. She smiled and said that the last thing a rancher wants is a Federal person ‘educating them’. There was no collaborative effort on my part–I was right, they just didn’t know it yet. Fortunately I learned a valuable lesson. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I do listen to the other sides and value their point of view. Thanks for your insite!

    • Jimmy says:

      As always, it’s good to get your input Deborah. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Your experience reminds me of my youth. When I was sixteen with a new car, I asked my mother if I could go to a friend’s house for a party. She told me no. End of story. Something about being told the answer with no opportunity for dialogue agitated me. I then went to my father with the same request. He began asking me questions. We had a dialogue. He suggested some reasons why a parent would have concerns. After awhile he asked me what I would do if I were in his shoes. I didn’t go to that party. And from that moment my parents and I had a stronger relationship. They trusted me more and I had a lot of freedom because of that trust. They had been teenagers once but I had never been a parent. Seeing the situation through the lens of my parents helped us all avoid conflicts in the future. Seeing conservation challenges through the lens of our stakeholders should help us understand their version of reality and how we can find solutions.

  8. Doug says:

    I think my comments were misconstrued a bit. I work with a specific coalition of agencies and NGOs on recovery issues, Not so much with communities Within that partnership there can often be competing objectives that do not funnel themselves toward a successful introduction effort. In a situation like this, there is a compelling need for leadership. I agree with what others said about the need for community based leadership in most landscape based recovery efforts.

    • Jimmy says:

      Thank you for being cognizant Doug. I know you find yourself in a tough adaptive challenge, which are never solved over night. Thank you for the work you’re doing for the rest of us.

  9. Noah says:

    An impressive array of insightful comments so far! I agree with what’s been written, so I won’t pile on here. I think a mindset change could be brought about by a change in university curricula, where budding biologists are now taught primarily or entirely about the biology/ecology of the natural world, and little about the emotions and motivations of humans who make decisions affecting wildlife and habitat. I, for one, now realize that being a successful conservationist is dependent on me understanding people’s needs and motivations. Yes, gotta know the biology, too, and collect the data, as Joanna correctly described, but people in our field could really use more education/training in social sciences. Oh, and land managers should stick around at a place for longer than 3 years, too! That’s critical to earning the trust and building the community rapport that we all know is necessary.

    • Jimmy says:

      Great that you jumped in Noah! Thank you for bringing up education and training in the soft skills needed in our profession. Fortunately for current and future students there are courses in human dimensions of conservation. For current professionals there is a growing number of resources. The National Conservation Leadership Institute has an amazing six-month program. For state agency employees the Management Assistance Team has a number of great online and in-person opportunities. The National Conservation Training Center (site unavailable) offers a number of Webinars on human dimensions too. One might consider obtaining a certificate from the NeuroLeadership Institute to understand how the brain works to more successfully move people through change. There is also a treasure trove of books that can be helpful too. I place Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow at the top. What have others found to be useful aids to learning how to work with stakeholders?

  10. Joanna says:

    I’m back again Jimmy. Just read this blog by Tim Merriam that’s interconnects with your blog. To me, he is more eloquently (than me) describing “facilitation” in successful partnerships in endangered species conservation.
    “It may not always be easy to take a step back from your own desires and discover what a partner needs or wants, and how you might be of help in obtaining it, but if you want to be successful in your partnerships, this shift in perspective is absolutely critical. Simply expecting a partner to be supportive of your efforts without getting anything in return could be the primary reason why many partnerships fail within a fairly short time frame. Everyone must have a reason to continue participating in the partnership.”

    • Jimmy says:

      Thank you Joanna! I get it. Giving without receiving anything in return is how we build loyalty. Being the first to sacrifice signals our commitment to the solution. And generates the loyalty and trust we need to build relationships. I can think of several personal examples…thanks for sharing!

  11. David Wright says:

    I had a hard time making a vote. While there has to be a sustained relationship with the public, (and I would probably vote in that direction) I keep thinking back to my struggles as a public official, and as a lobbyist, The struggles frequently did not come with people but with corporations (no matter what Citizens United says they are not people) who held sway over many issues. But while they are not people, they do have the ability, both overtly and covertly, to gain the day at the expense of nature. The examples here are absolutely limitless—-I just noticed an article today about a guy sailing from Australia to Japan. He simply stated the ocean is now dead.

    I was involved in a fight with BFI, a multinational refuse collector, who wanted to build a landfill in our county to serve Denver. The local folks were totally opposed and after hearings with literally thousands of people, the only thing that really got BFI”s attention was the cowboys who simply said , “We’re gonna shoot out your damn tires if’n you get those God damned trucks any where near my land.”

    So what am I saying? Yes, development of relationships are important, critical, but there is the bigger issue of who is actually calling the shots. I saw three pairs of Osprey on our local pond this spring where there used to be none. I saw numerous bald Eagles on the Nemakogan a week ago. Most of these are back not because of so much local action with citizens but because of lawsuits against the paper mills and manufactures of pesticides. I also might add that some of them are back because some of the big nasty industries that spewed the chemicals are no longer in the area—they went to China to create the mess they now have. This might be seen as a bit of attrition. Anyway, just some thoughts form an old crank.

  12. Jimmy says:

    Thanks for your comment David! I appreciate your perspective as an “old crank.” I suppose when relationships fail litigation is a recourse.

  13. Jackie says:

    I Want it All! (Data and Collaboration I Mean)

    I agree that we need to spend more time on building relationships outside of our individual organizations to develop collaborative solutions to endangered species issues. Likewise, there are many endangered species issues that folks outside of conservation, or even just outside of a particular organization, do not understand due to a lack of “audience specific” communication. As a coastal biologist at a highly visited property, I constantly have to remind myself that endangered species conservation is as much about the data and adaptive management as it is about the communication. For example, we often have visitors that love to find out how they can help protect endangered sea turtles but they have no idea why we would spend time on protecting endangered beach mice. However, if I explain (without scientific jargon), how the presence of beach mice indicate healthy dune habitats and how healthy dunes habitats protect structures from hurricane storm surges, they begin to understand. I believe the visitors reach this understanding because they are probably staying in a beach house on their vacation that they love and want protected by healthy dunes. Through this simple “audience specific” communication I have even sparked the interest of some “non-believers” to become volunteers and help me with my beach mouse research. I realize this is not exactly the same thing as building relationships with stakeholders such as private landowners, fire departments, timber companies, and state and federal biologists. However, I believe you can understand my basic point. Building these relationships with stakeholders requires “audience specific” communication to bring everyone to the table on equal footing. Once everyone is on equal footing, it is much easier to reach innovative and collaborative solutions that would not have been thought of without everyone’s input.

    As for wanting it all, I agree with other posts that we need the data as much as we need to build relationships and create collaborative solutions. However, I also believe we need to be strategic in our data collection. The best way to describe this (much more eloquently than I ever could) is by quoting the USFWS Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC) approach.

    “The SHC approach is built on five main components that compel the FWS to align expertise, capability and operations across our programs in a unified effort to achieve mutually aspired biological outcomes: (1) biological planning – working with partners to establish shared conservation targets and measurable biological objectives (i.e. population) for these outcomes, and identify limiting factors affecting our shared conservation targets; (2) conservation design – creating tools that allow us to direct conservation actions to most effectively contribute to measurable biological outcomes, (3) conservation delivery – working collaboratively with a broad range of partners to create and carry out conservation strategies with value at multiple spatial scales, and (4) outcome-based monitoring – evaluating the effectiveness of conservation actions in reaching biological outcomes and to adapt future planning and delivery and (5) assumption driven research – testing assumptions made during biological planning to refine future plans and actions. Both monitoring and research help us learn from our decisions and activities and improve them over time (”

    Maybe I am biased because I am a biologist, but I believe it always comes back to the data. We use data to help us come up with informed collaborative ideas for endangered species conservation. Likewise, the only way we can figure out if those ideas are working or if the ideas need refinement is through data collection and appropriate analysis.

    Great topic to Jimmy! If anything it has reminded me to practice what I preach 🙂

    • Jimmy says:

      Great to get your experiences here Jackie! You are modeling the behavior for others. Perhaps the SHC model should include a sixth component, “audience-specific communication – telling compelling stories of why this biological work is important to specific groups of people.”

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