The Genesis of Modern Collaborative Conservation

As 2023 draws to a close, the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) will transition into the beginning of the next half-century. Looking ahead, we observe a notably positive shift in how the Act is being implemented. Over the first 50 years, we accumulated a wealth of knowledge, developed numerous regulations and processes, and succeeded in preventing the extinction of many species, while a few were even on the path to recovery. Regrettably, for some, the ESA came into play a bit too late. During this initial half-century, conflicts often arose in the implementation of the Act, both among agencies and the public. However, these conflicts have served as valuable lessons. Many articles have been written on various aspects of the ESA’s application, but I can sum up the lessons learned succinctly: “the carrot tends to be more effective than the stick.” Innovative approaches to ESA implementation, where species are viewed as assets rather than liabilities by private and public landowners, are the way forward.

We can trace the roots of this new collaborative conservation approach back to 1990. During that year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Northern Spotted Owl and proposed the listing of the Louisiana Black Bear as a threatened species. The threatened owl was managed in a “traditional” manner, employing the regulatory powers of the ESA to protect the species. On the other hand, the threatened bear was managed using some of the flexibilities authorized under the ESA, which incentivized cooperation and collaboration with state and federal agencies, as well as private landowners. Many of us now consider this approach as second nature, but in 1990, it was a highly innovative, high-risk strategy that proved extremely beneficial for the species as well as private landowners and communities.

This new collaborative conservation approach was implemented using Section 4, subsection (d) of the ESA, often referred to as the “4(d) Rules.” These rules allow the federal government to tailor the protections and incentives for species classified as “threatened,” considering the species’ biology, the ecosystems they inhabit, and the needs of the communities (both private and public landowners) that support these species.

At the time, it was unknown, but this marked the inception of “Conservation without Conflict,” wherein private landowners, federal, state, and local agencies, tribal governments, non-governmental organizations, academia, and many other partners came together to identify and share common goals and needs. These individuals and entities set aside their perceived differences, found common ground, communicated effectively, and built long-lasting trust. This simple model of Conservation without Conflict resulted in the recovery and eventual delisting, in 2016, of the Louisiana Black Bear.

Today, the Conservation without Conflict philosophy and collaborative conservation model continue to expand across the nation. Their scope extends not only to species recovery but also to preventing species from needing ESA protections in the first place. Implementers of the Conservation without Conflict philosophy work alongside all those interested in collaborative conservation, with the aim of keeping common species common, conserving at-risk and listed species as well as the ecosystems where they occur. By working together, we not only build a robust and diverse conservation community but also maximize our limited resources for the conservation and recovery of species requiring ESA protection.

As we move into the next fifty or even one hundred years, we will continue to innovate and enhance the way we implement conservation. The future of conservation envisions a cultural shift from confrontation-first to an ethos of collaboration always.

By Leopoldo Miranda-Castro
Executive Director

Shade-Coffee as a Beacon for Sustainability: Implementing Conservation without Conflict in Puerto Rico 

Coffee, adored by many around the globe, flourishes in over 80 tropical countries. Beyond its role as a morning ritual, its vast annual sales, surpassing $165 billion, position it as a cornerstone of global trade. As this cherished commodity ripples through the world’s economies, its significance is especially pronounced in developing nations, where, astoundingly, coffee can constitute over 80% of export revenues.

Let’s embark on a journey through the realms of coffee cultivation. Two predominant practices stand out: shade-grown and sun-grown. Shade-grown coffee flourishes beneath a protective umbrella of towering trees. These trees, often indigenous to the area, play a multifaceted role. They provide vital habitats for wildlife, shield delicate soils, and conserve crucial water sources. Wander through a shade coffee estate, and you’ll observe an environment where nature thrives, offering a natural deterrent to pests and playing a pivotal role in natural reserve management.

In contrast, sun-grown coffee farms prioritize yield above all. Eliminating the protective canopy, they expose coffee plants to the unrelenting sun. While this might boost production for a few years, it falls short of the biodiversity and environmental benefits of its shaded counterpart, lacking support for native flora and fauna and requiring a heavy influx of fertilizers and pesticides.

The United States, renowned as the world’s top coffee consumer, also dons the lesser-known hat of a producer. Its tropical areas, primarily Hawaii and Puerto Rico, host its coffee estates. Hawaii leans towards sun-grown coffee, but Puerto Rico holds onto the time-honored tradition of shade-grown farming. But the value of these shaded farms extends beyond their environmental role. They stand as bastions of diversified farming, showcasing a harmonious coexistence of multiple crops.  In fact, over 50 different crops have been identified in Puerto Rican shade coffee plantations.

Ever since coffee’s introduction to Puerto Rico in the mid-1700s, it has been the foundation of a diversified agricultural fabric, producing a rich array of food and wood, vital to local communities. In Puerto Rico’s verdant farms, a wide variety of crops grow alongside coffee, from bananas and avocados to mangoes, creating an economic safety net for farmers amidst the unpredictable waves of market prices. Diversity is, undoubtedly, the best defense against the uncertainties of farming.

These shade coffee farms have been stalwarts of Puerto Rican biodiversity for nearly three centuries, ensuring both ecological balance and economic sustenance. They’ve sheltered countless species from the brink of extinction (like the Puerto Rican Parrot), while also nourishing numerous families. Today, their importance is undiminished, continuing to play a pivotal role in both conservation and economic sustainability.

Recognizing their immense value, many coffee growers are reverting from monocultures to this traditional shade-grown model. Collaborating with entities like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and esteemed NGOs such as EnviroSurvey Inc. and Protectores de Cuencas, the Puerto Rican Center for Landscape Conservation, and North Carolina State University, coffee producers are leading the charge towards a more sustainable future. Shade coffee farming, a practice with deep historical roots, is re-emerging at the forefront in today’s world of mounting environmental and economic challenges. It stands as a shining example of sustainable agriculture, illuminating a path forward that seamlessly marries conservation with economic sustainability. In essence, shade coffee farming underscores the promise of “Conservation without Conflict,” delineating a blueprint to satisfy both ecological and economic needs.

By Leopoldo Miranda-Castro

For more information on recent efforts visit:


Brash, A. R. 1987. The history of avian extinction and forest conversion in Puerto Rico. Biological Conservation 39: 97-111.

Jha Shalene, C.M. Bacon, S.M. Philpott, V. E. Mendez, P. Laderach, and R.A. Rice. 2014. Shade Coffee: Update on a Disappearing Refuge for Biodiversity.  BioScience.

Prado, S.G., J.A. Collazo and R.E. Irwin. 2018. Resurgence of specialized shade coffee cultivation: Effects on pollination services and quality of coffee production.  (

Conservation without Conflict: A Persuasive Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving Collaborative Conservation

Conservation efforts are critical to preserving our planet’s precious biodiversity, especially listed and at-risk species. However, different approaches to conservation practices often impede progress, inadvertently create conflict, and hinder the achievement of our shared environmental goals. This persuasive step-by-step guide aims to inspire and empower readers to embrace voluntary, collaborative conservation practices. Doing so will foster understanding, cooperation, and realization of mutual benefits for all stakeholders, ensuring working lands continue working and species conservation goals are achieved.

This guide is a living document.  It was developed based on a wide array of case studies gathered by our coalition members and personal experiences. By no means is this guide intended to be prescriptive. It is simply “a guide” to provide some of the basic common factors present in many successful fish and wildlife conservation endeavors. Our intent is to help you spark new ideas and approaches that could be adapted and used to address a specific conservation context or the needs of landowners, local communities and any other stakeholders involved.

Before exploring the guide, itself, I would like to encourage all of you to provide any feedback you may have by leaving comments below.  I would also like to encourage you to share any examples or case studies you may have that illustrate this voluntary approach. You can use this template [click here] to send us your example or you may use any other format that may be better for you and email it to  You may not have a specific example; however, you can probably identify challenges you may have encountered and do not know where to start to overcome those challenges. If so, feel free to send us a note to the email address above. We will be more than glad to discuss those challenges and provide ideas and/or contacts to help you navigate them.

Effective conservation without conflict involves several important steps.  These include:

Step 1: Embrace the Local Context

Embrace and understand the local context by carefully listening to local stakeholders. Dive deeply into the unique social, economic, cultural, political, and historical factors that shape the members and communities where conservation initiatives are taking place. Engage genuinely with individuals, local communities, indigenous groups, and stakeholders to establish trust and respect. It takes time. By showing genuine interest and understanding their needs, concerns, and aspirations, we can lay the foundation for fruitful collaboration.

Step 2: Empower Meaningful Engagement and Participation

Empower landowners, local communities, NGOs, government agencies, scientists, and other key stakeholders through meaningful engagement and participation early in the process. Identify and consult with any tribes whose interests may be impacted. Create spaces for open and safe dialogue, workshops, field trips and any other type of forums where everyone’s voices are heard. Make sure they are involved in the beginning of the scoping or planning processes and encourage active participation in decision-making processes, ensuring that their invaluable perspectives are incorporated into conservation strategies. By embracing collaboration, we can tap into a wealth of local knowledge and experiences, fostering a sense of ownership and shared land stewardship.

Step 3:  Clarity of Purpose: Unite Around Shared Goals

Identify and be crystal clear about the shared goals of the initiative for the natural environment, the landowners, local communities, and any other stakeholder involved. Clarity of purpose provides direction, focus, and motivation, guiding our decisions and actions. With a clear purpose, we align our values, foster unity, cooperation, and productivity. Clarity of purpose empowers us to make purposeful choices and create a positive impact.  Showcase the benefits of how conservation efforts can enhance and sustain local economies and livelihoods, and bolster ecosystem services. Emphasize the positive outcomes that can be achieved, such as improved health (physical and mental), sustainable income generation, and a resilient environment for future generations. By uniting around these shared aspirations, we can build strong alliances based on trust and overcome potential conflicts.

Step 4: Implement Adaptive Management Strategies

Adopt adaptive management strategies that promote flexibility, learning, and continuous improvement. Never stop learning. Conservation and sustainability are an evolving process, and we must be responsive to changing circumstances and emerging insights. Regularly monitor and evaluate the outcomes of our actions, seeking feedback from local landowners and communities and adjust the strategies and tactics accordingly. By embracing adaptability, we foster innovation, build trust, and ensure that our conservation approaches remain effective and relevant.

Step 5: Foster Sustainable Livelihoods and Conservation

Highlight the shared goals and benefits of working lands and integrate livelihood considerations into conservation planning and implementation. Acknowledge the dependence of landowners and communities on natural resources for their well-being and economic survival. Explore opportunities for sustainable income generation through sustainable resource management, outdoor activities, or any other nature-based business initiatives. By linking sustainable livelihoods with conservation efforts, we can create incentives for individuals and communities to actively support and engage in collaborative conservation activities.

Step 6: Build Capacity and Empower Landowners and Local Communities

Invest in capacity-building initiatives that empower landowners and local communities to take charge of conservation efforts. Provide training, education, and skills development programs that enhance their understanding of sustainable resource management. Encourage the formation of local groups and ensure their inclusion in decision-making processes. By empowering landowners and local communities, we foster a sense of ownership and land stewardship, ensuring the long-term success of collaborative conservation endeavors.

Step 7: Establish Collaborative Governance Mechanisms

Create very simple but inclusive and transparent governance mechanisms that actively involve all stakeholders in decision-making processes. This could be formal or informal. Clearly define the authorities, responsibilities, and expectations for each public and private partner.  Collaborate with landowners, communities, businesses, government agencies, NGOs, and other relevant entities to develop joint partnerships. By sharing knowledge, decision-making power, resolving conflicts, and ensuring equitable distribution of responsibilities and benefits, we can create a harmonious and inclusive collaborative conservation framework.

Step 8: Cultivate Continuous Communication and Learning

Maintain constant open lines of communication with all stakeholders and establish feedback mechanisms that facilitate ongoing dialogue and learning. Be available. Regularly share information, updates, and progress reports regarding conservation activities to ensure there are no surprises. Promote sharing of information in formal and informal settings. Openly celebrate success. Openly acknowledge and learn from your mistakes. Actively involve landowners and communities in monitoring and data collection efforts, valuing their traditional knowledge and observations. Ensure that information is fully accessible, culturally appropriate, and delivered through various mediums to foster effective communication.

Conclusion: The Conservation without Conflict model is not only possible but necessary for the long-term sustainability of our planet’s biodiversity and the well-being of local communities. By embracing the local context, empowering engagement, uniting around shared goals, implementing adaptive management strategies, fostering sustainable livelihoods, building capacity, establishing collaborative governance, cultivating continuous communication, and building trust, we can achieve collaborative conservation that benefits us all and ensures working lands can continue to work. Let us join forces, build trust to overcome conflicts, and work together to create a sustainable and thriving future for our nation and its remarkable species.

By Leopoldo Miranda-Castro

Restoring Alligator Snapping Turtles to Their Native Waters: A Success Story in Collaborative Conservation

The “dinosaur-like” alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) are among the largest freshwater turtles in the world and are the largest in North America. They can weigh up to 200 pounds and can live to be 100 years!

The project to restore Alligator Snapping Turtles (ASTs) to their natural habitat was initiated as a response to a poaching sting operation conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) law enforcement. Approximately 30 live ASTs were confiscated during the operation and held at the Natchitoches National Fish Hatchery in Louisiana while the case was prosecuted. It was suspected that these turtles were taken from Texas and brought to Louisiana by poachers. To ensure the turtles’ return to their native habitat in Texas, state and federal resource agencies sought landowner cooperation.

Voluntary and collaborative conservation actions were taken to facilitate the successful reintroduction of the ASTs. Resource agencies, in coordination with hatchery staff and veterinarians from the Houston Zoo, conducted health checks and genetic sampling of the turtles prior to release. This measure aimed to prevent the introduction of pathogens or genes that could have negative consequences for wild populations. Landowners with potential release locations were identified and asked if they were willing to participate. Additionally, researchers conducted pre-release population surveys at the release sites, while personnel from various agencies coordinated efforts to facilitate the release. Telemetry equipment was fitted on the turtles before their release, enabling a long-term study to assess the success of the reintroduction and enhance our understanding of AST behavior.

However, the project encountered challenges and obstacles along the way. Firstly, the AST Species Status Assessment raised concerns that the released turtles might soon be listed as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. This led to hesitancy among landowners, who were wary of the increased risk associated with introducing potentially listed species on their land. Secondly, genetic analysis was deemed necessary to determine the turtles’ river basin of origin and prevent unforeseen genetic consequences among wild populations.

Despite these challenges, the project successfully overcame them. The USFWS drafted an Endangered Species Act “Section 7” consultation (e.g., conference opinion) on the plan to release turtles. In the event of listing, this consultation would already have given incidental take authorization, minimizing the risk and eliminating the regulatory burden for landowners helping the species.

Additionally, the Turtle Survival Alliance provided funding and logistical support to Tangled Bank Conservation, which developed a range-wide population genetics framework to identify the drainages from which the confiscated turtles originated. The Sabine River Authority of Texas and the Northeast Texas Municipal Water District funded the genetic analysis to ensure the turtles were returned to their proper river basins.

The outcomes of the project were significant and will continue to provide conservation benefits long-term. Twenty-two adult and seven juvenile ASTs were returned to the wild six years after their confiscation. These individuals will contribute to local turtle populations in the areas where they were originally poached. Furthermore, the project used the Conservation without Conflict approach by fostering collaboration and trust among river authorities, state and federal resource agencies, universities, and private landowners. Their collective efforts and commitment to the species were recognized by the USFWS with the 2021 Partner of the Year Award.

The project yielded valuable lessons for conservation efforts. It demonstrated that even unusual or difficult challenges can be overcome through creativity, innovation, and effective communication. It also emphasized the importance of challenging conventional approaches and being open to alternative operational methods.

Among the project’s major accomplishments was the strengthening of partnerships between state and federal resource agencies and the establishment of a foundation for future conservation agreements and collaborations. Returning illegally collected wildlife to their native waters served as a great example of wildlife conservation without conflict in Texas and across the nation.

Looking back, the project organizers acknowledged the need for more time and resources for coordination. Although deliberate efforts were made to coordinate with the diverse range of partners involved, each entity had its own internal coordination needs and expectations. Recognizing these needs and expectations early on could make projects like this even more successful.

Funding for the project was provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife, Sabine River Authority, Northeast Texas Municipal Water District, and The Turtle Survival Alliance.

While the project itself was short-term, it laid the groundwork for future long-term conservation efforts. A long-term telemetry study will be conducted to assess the success and sustainability of the reintroduction, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of AST habitat use, range, and movements. The project serves as a testament to the power of collaborative conservation and highlights the potential for successful outcomes when multiple stakeholders work together towards a common goal.

By Bill Kirby, Sabine River Authority of Texas

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