The question of how ecology can guide decisions about conservation actions is a vexed one of which much has already been written with respect to conservation triage (Bottrill et al. 2009, Gerber 2016). The global question – what should we do now? – produces two extreme answers: (1) do nothing. The biodiversity on earth has gone through many climatic fluctuations imposed by geology and planetary physics and these forces are out of our hands. Or (2) we must protect all species because we do not know if they are important for ecosystem function. The government recognizes that (2) is impossible, and either reflects back to answer (1) or politely asks scientists to suggest what is possible to achieve with limited funding. John Wiens (2016) in an interesting discussion in the British Ecological Society Bulletin (December 2016, pp 38-39) suggests that two possible solutions to this conundrum are to get more funding for conservation to reduce this clear financial limitation, or secondly to move from the conservation of individual species to that of ecosystems. The problem he and many others recognize is that the public at large fall in love with individual species much more readily than with ecosystems. It is the same problem medical science often faces with contributions from wealthy people – attack individual diseases with my funding, not public health in general.
Ecologists face this dilemma with respect to their research agenda and research grants in general – what exactly can you achieve in 3-5 years with a small amount of money? If your research is species-specific, something useful can often be studied particularly if the threatening processes are partly understood and you adopt an experimental approach. If your research is ecosystem oriented and your funds are limited you must generally go to the computer and satellite ecology to make any short term research possible. This problem of larger scale = larger costs can be alleviated if you work in a group of scientists all addressing the same ecosystem issue. This still requires large scale funding which is not as easily obtained as ecologists might like. The government by contrast wishes more and more to see results even after only a few years, and asks whether you have answered your original question. The result is a patchwork of ecological data which too often makes no one happy.
If you want a concrete example, consider the woodland caribou of western Canada (Schneider et al. 2010). For these caribou Hebblewhite (2017) has clearly outlined a case in which the outcomes of any particular action are difficult to predict with the certainty that governments and business would be happy with. Many small herds are decreasing in size, and one path is to triage them, leaving many small herds to go extinct and trying to focus financial resources to save larger herds in larger blocks of habitat for future generations. The problem is the oil and gas industry in western Canada, and hence the battle between resources that are worth billions of dollars and a few caribou. Wolf control can serve as a short term solution, but it is expensive and temporary. Governments like action even if it is of no use in the long term; it makes good media coverage. None of these kinds of conservation decisions are scientific in nature, and must be policy decisions by governments. It flips us back into the continuum between options (1) and (2) in the opening paragraph above. And for governments policy decisions are more about jobs and money than about conservation.
The list of threatened and endangered species that make our newspapers are a tiny fraction of the diversity of species in any ecosystem. There is no question but that many of these charismatic species are declining in numbers, but the two larger questions are: will this particular species go extinct? And if this happens will this make any difference to ecosystem function? There is scarcely a single species of all that are listed as threatened and endangered for which ecologists have a good answer to either of these questions. So the fallback position to option (1) is that we have a moral obligation to protect all species. But this fallback position leads us even further out of science.
In the end we must ask as scientists what we can do with the understanding we have, and what more needs to be done to improve this understanding. Behind all this scientific research looms the elephant of climate change which we either ignore or build untestable computer models to make ‘predictions’ which may or may not occur, if only because of the time scales involved.
None of these problems prevents us from taking actions on conservation on the ground (Wiens 2016a). We know that, if we take away all the habitat, species abundances will decline and some will go extinct. Protecting habitat is the best course of action now because it needs little research to guide action. There is much to know yet about the scale of habitats that need preservation, and about how the present scale of climate change is affecting protected areas now. Short term research can be most useful for these issues. Long-term research needs to follow.
Bottrill, M.C., et al. (2009) Finite conservation funds mean triage is unavoidable. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 183-184. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.11.007
Gerber, L.R. (2016) Conservation triage or injurious neglect in endangered species recovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 113, 3563-3566. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525085113
Hebblewhite, M. (2017) Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil and gas industry. Biological Conservation, 206, 102-111. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.12.014
Schneider, R.R., Hauer, G., Adamowicz, W.L. & Boutin, S. (2010) Triage for conserving populations of threatened species: The case of woodland caribou in Alberta. Biological Conservation, 143, 1603-1611. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.04.002
Wiens, J.A. (2016) Is conservation a zero-sum game? British Ecological Society Bulletin 47(4): 38-39.
Wiens, J.A. (2016a) Ecological Challenges and Conservation Conundrums: Essays and Reflections for a Changing World. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. 344 pp. ISBN: 9781118895108