How to do Conservation Planning

The biota of the Earth is in trouble because of human activities, and the question conservation people ask is what should we do about it? Conservation planning has become the key way to proceed, but its implementation has unleased an unholy row of the best way to proceed. In a sense conservation planning is like city planning in having to make decisions about what to do where. There are two broad approaches to conservation: focus on species-at-risk and their needs and plan accordingly to protect them. Alternatively focus on ecosystems and protect them without all the detailed knowledge that is required for protecting species-at-risk. This is the first source of conflict because the public at large falls in love with species, so polar bears and blue whales and tigers are an easy sell to obtain funding from private and government sources. This is at present the dominant force in conservation, and if there is enough information available the conservation of polar bears and tigers will act as “umbrella species” to protect many other species at possible risk. So single species conservation can perhaps impinge on ecosystem conservation if we designate national parks or protected areas for the charismatic species that we all admire.

But there are many other species out there that conservation biologists are concerned about, collectively labeled biodiversity. Perhaps we should conserve biodiversity instead of focusing on individual species. But right away we run into two problems. In any ecosystem many of the species present are undescribed so we cannot put a Latin name on them, or if they are described we know almost nothing about their function in the ecosystem. So, we have a key question: do we need to understand ecosystem dynamics before we can prioritize biodiversity conservation? Most ecologists believe that many of the species in any ecosystem could disappear with little effect on ecosystem functioning. The arguments are largely about which species can we dispense with, and true conservation advocates say that all must be saved.

The problem is that conservation planning is a resource allocation problem – where do we put our money (Gerber et al. 2018)? Ideas about how best to establish rules for setting aside critical areas for conservation go back to Pressey and Nicholls (1989) and in subsequent years the conservation planning literature has exploded (e.g. Margules and Pressey 2000). Techniques for conservation planning were first designed to maximize the number of species retained in the reserve, and this was the first of many problems. You had to have ‘empty’ land to set aside in the proposed reserve and you had to know the species that the reserve would protect. This was perhaps more possible in Australia or Canada but difficult to implement in the USA and Europe where much land was in private hands.

Conservation planning involves a set of difficult hurdles. If we concentrate on single species, we may well find that protected areas are in the wrong place (Mason et al. 2018). If we concentrate on ecosystems, we must decide on which ecosystems containing which species, and make this decision when the ecosystems are poorly documented and changing with climate change. All this planning must take place in the public arena where people and their elected politicians are trying to decide whether it is more important to protect large charismatic species like caribou or zebras rather than a few small butterflies. In general, all these decisions are made in a near-absence of ecological concerns about predator-prey interactions, competition, movements, or disease threats, the factors individual ecologists spend their lives studying. Much discussion focuses on critical habitat for a favoured species, and, given that we can define critical habitat for our favoured species, how much is needed and how much will it cost (Gerber et al. 2018). By 2015, critical habitat had been legally identified for only 45% of listed species in the United States, 13% in Canada and less than 1% in Australia (Martin et al. 2017, Bird and Hodges 2017). Once we have identified ‘critical habitats’ for a threatened species, we need to be sure it is not an ecological trap (Battin 2004, Camaclang et al. 2014, Lamb et al. 2017), or that the data we have is not related to the data we need for conservation planning (Dallas and Hastings 2018).

Given all these problems, many efforts are underway to plan conservation areas, particularly in the marine realm (Edgar et al. 2014, Mason et al. 2018). What is necessary now is follow up by careful monitoring the population and ecosystem changes in areas that are set aside for conservation. Without monitoring we will lack an early-warning system to pick up mistakes and try to correct them (Lindenmayer et al. 2018).  

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Pressey RL, Nicholls AO (1989). Application of a numerical algorithm to the selection of reserves in semi-arid New South Wales. Biological Conservation 50, 263-278. Doi: 10.1016/0006-3207(89)90013-X

Martin TG, Camaclang AE, Possingham HP, Maguire LA, Chades I (2017). Timing of protection of critical habitat matters. Conservation Letters 10, 308-316. Doi: 10.1111/conl.12266

Mason C, et al. (2018). Telemetry reveals existing marine protected areas are worse than random for protecting the foraging habitat of threatened shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta). Diversity & Distributions 24, 1744-1755. Doi: 10.1111/ddi.12830

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