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Proactive Conservation is a paradigm of natural resource management in the United States that encourages voluntary, collaborative efforts to restore species before they need to be protected through government regulations. This paradigm is widely used to conserve at-risk species today, and when used in conjunction with the Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts (PECE), it allows for successful conservation actions to preclude listing of species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Despite the popularity of this paradigm, and recent flagship examples of its use (e.g., greater sage grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus), critical assessments of the outcomes of Proactive Conservation are lacking from the standpoint of species status and recovery metrics. Here, we provide such an evaluation, using the New England cottontail (Sylvilagus transitionalis), heralded as a success of Proactive Conservation efforts in the northeastern United States, as a case study. We review the history and current status of the species, based on the state of the science, in the context of the Conservation Initiative, and the 2015 PECE decision not to the list the species under the ESA. In addition to the impacts of the PECE decision on the New England cottontail conservation specifically, our review also evaluates the benefits and limits of the Proactive Conservation paradigm more broadly, and we make recommendations for its role in relation to ESA implementation for the future of at-risk species management. We find that the status and assurances for recovery under the PECE policy, presented at the time of the New England cottontail listing decision, were overly optimistic, and the status of the species has worsened in subsequent years. We suggest that use of PECE to avoid listing may occur because of the perception of the ESA as a punitive law and a misconception that it is a failure, although very few listed species have gone extinct. Redefining recovery to decouple it from delisting and instead link it to probability of persistence under recommended conservation measures would remove some of the stigma of listing, and it would strengthen the role of Species Status Assessments in endangered species conservation.
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Kovach, A.I., Cheeseman, A.E., Cohen, J.B. et al. Separating Proactive Conservation from Species Listing Decisions. Environmental Management 70, 710–729 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-022-01713-9