With a handshake on a creek bank, Ovando rancher John Krutar began helping himself by helping the bull trout in its struggle against extinction.
Krutar's family bought their 500-acre ranch in 1948; at that time, bull trout spawned in a nearby stream-water he used, until recently, to flood-irrigate a meadow, often decreasing its flow in the summer.
But with the handshake, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to help purchase a pump for Krutar if he would consider expanding his sprinkler system. Krutar agreed, and now his field produces more grass while more water remains in the stream for fish.
"I'm not in love with bull trout," Krutar says. "But I've learned it's an important indicator of the health of a watershed."
Krutar is one of a growing number of private landowners who are restoring wildlife habitat, in part to help threatened or endangered species.
And such cooperation could mean the difference between success and failure for efforts to protect species that are on the verge of extinction. According to a recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., more than half of the endangered species in the U.S. have at least 81 percent of their habitat on non-federal land.
"It's extremely important as a conservation strategy to involve private landowners in protecting wildlife habitat," says Mike Bean, director of the fund's wildlife program.
For years, private landowners, fearing regulations that restrict their property rights, have followed the three-S method of conservation when it came to threatened species: shoot it, shovel dirt over it and shut up about it. Their fears have been stoked by tales of economic hardships allegedly suffered by those who have found an endangered species living on their property.
"The secret is how to get people to talk about the Endangered Species Act," says Greg Schildwachter, a University of Montana wildlife biologist who has studied the often rocky relationship between government agencies and private landowners.
"There's a lot of uncertainty, distrust, confusion and anxiety among landowners about getting shut down," he adds.
There are a number of legal ways for landowners to get around federal restrictions. They can sign a habitat-conservation plan, thus promising to underwrite habitat restoration elsewhere, or they can pay for an "incidental take permit," freeing them-at a price-to do anything they want with their land.
But taking advantage of such loopholes can be expensive, running in the tens of thousands of dollars, and are often unavailable to landowners without a lot of extra money lying around. And some believe that those programs shortchange the animals as well. "The species don't break even," says David Wilcove, the fund's senior ecologist. "They're worse off."
The Fund has proposed a number of incentives to reward landowners for being good stewards. One pilot project, called "safe harbor," has already proved successful in maintaining longleaf pine habitat in South Carolina for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Safe harbor works this way. A landowner in South Carolina may agree to maintain a longleaf pine stand, that is not yet inhabited with the woodpecker, for 20 years. When the agreement expires, he can do with the land as he likes. The philosophy is that as some agreements expire, others will begin, maintaining a sound habitat base.
Another incentive, that would help Westerners keep their ranches intact, is estate tax reform, Wilcove says. Currently many cash-poor but land-rich heirs are forced to subdivide ranches they inherit because of the hefty estate tax. If those taxes were lowered, many might keep ranches intact, which would benefit wildlife.
A third enticement would give tax credits to landowners for everyday expenses incurred in managing property for prime wildlife habitat. The tax credits might help pay for controlled burns, exotic plant removal or predator control.
Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) has included some of the Fund's recommendations, including the safe harbor program, in proposed changes to federal law. His bill, which has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, would let local governments and landowners have more say in forming management strategies.
"My general assessment of the bill is that it has a number of very serious flaws-especially in turning over water rights adjudication to the states," Wilcove says. "It looks like it's designed to make the act look less onerous than be more effective."
But Schildwachter thinks that sections of the bill that tap local knowledge are smart ideas.
"Landowners already have a lot of good ideas, but right now they're lying low keeping their mouths shut," he says. "The public needs to get comfortable with experimenting in the local community."
When Schildwachter worked in south Texas on an ocelot study, he says he found that most landowners wanted to be good conservationists. "They thought it was cool to have an ocelot on their place," he says.