Is Conservation Ecology Destroying Ecology?

Ecology became a serious science some 100 years ago when the problems that it sought to understand were clear and simple: the reasons for the distribution and abundance of organisms on Earth. It subdivided fairly early into three parts, population, community, and ecosystem ecology. It was widely understood that to understand population ecology you needed to know a great deal about physiology and behaviour in relation to the environment, and to understand community ecology you had to know a great deal about population dynamics. Ecosystem ecology then moved into community ecology plus all the physical and chemical interactions with the whole environment. But the sciences are not static, and ecology in the past 60 years has come to include nearly everything from chemistry and geography to meteorological sciences, so if you tell someone you are an ‘ecologist’ now, they have only a vague idea of what you do.

The latest invader into the ecology sphere has been conservation biology so that in the last 20 years it has become a dominant driver of ecological concerns. This has brought ecology into the forefront of publicity and the resulting political areas of controversy, not necessarily bad but with some scientific consequences. ‘Bandwagons’ are for the most part good in science because it attracts good students and professors and brings public support on side. Bandwagons are detrimental when they draw too much of the available scientific funding away from critical basic research and champion scientific fads.

The question I wish to raise is whether conservation ecology has become the latest fad in the broad science of ecology and whether this has derailed important background research. Conservation science begins with the broad and desirable goal of preserving all life on Earth and thus thwarting extinctions. This is an impossible goal and the question then becomes how can we trim it down to an achievable scientific aim? We could argue that the most important goal is to describe all the species on Earth, so that we would then know what “money” we have in the “bank”. But if we look at the insects alone, we see that this is not an achievable goal in the short term. And the key to many of these issues is what we mean by “the short term”. If we are talking10 years, we may have very specific goals, if 100 years we may redesign the goal posts, and if 1000 years again our views might change.

This is a key point. As humans we design our goals in the time frames of months and a few years, not in general in geological time. Because of climate change we are now being forced to view many things in a shorter and shorter time frame. If you live in Miami, you should do something about sea level rise now. If you grow wheat in Australia, you should worry about decreasing annual rainfall. But science in general does not have a time frame. Technology does, and we need a new phone every year, but the understanding of cancer or the ecology of tropical rain forests does not have a deadline.

But conservation biology has a ticking clock called extinction. Now we can compound our concerns about climate change and conservation to capture more of the funding for biological research in order to prevent extinctions of rare and endangered species. 

Ecological science over the past 40 years has been progressing slowly through population ecology into community and ecosystem ecology while learning that the details of populations are critical to the understanding of community function and learning how communities operate is necessary for understanding ecosystem change. None of this has been linear progress but rather a halting progression with many deviations and false leads. In order to push this agenda forward more funding has clearly been needed because teams of researchers are needed to understand a community and even more people to study an ecosystem. At the same time the value of long-term studies has become evident and equipment has become more expensive.

We have now moved into the Anthropocene in which in my opinion the focus has shifted completely from trying to answer the primary problems of ecological science to the conservation of organisms. In practice this has too often resulted in research that could only be called poor population ecology. Poor in the sense of the need for immediate short-term answers for declining species populations with no proper understanding of the underlying problem. We are faced with calls for funding that are ‘crying wolf’ with inadequate data but heartfelt opinions. Recovery plans for single species or closely related groups focus on a set of unstudied opinions that may well be correct, but to test these ideas in a reliable scientific manner would take years. Triage on a large scale is practiced without discussing the issue, and money is thrown at problems based on the publicity generated. Populations of threatened species continue to decline in what can only be described as failed management. Blame is spread in all directions to developers or farmers or foresters or chemical companies. I do not think these are the signs of a good science which above all ought to work from the strength of evidence and prepare recovery plans based on empirical science.

Part of the problem I think lies in the modern need to ‘do something’, ‘do anything’ to show that you care about a particular problem. ‘We have now no time for slow-moving conventional science, we need immediate results now’. Fortunately, many ecologists are critical of these undesirable trends in our science and carry on (e.g. Amos et al. 2013). You will not likely read tweets about these people or read about them in your daily newspapers. Evidence-based science is rarely quick, and complaints like those that I give here are not new (Sutherland et al. 2004, Likens 2010, Nichols 2012).  

Amos, J.N., Balasubramaniam, S., Grootendorst, L. et al. (2013). Little evidence that condition, stress indicators, sex ratio, or homozygosity are related to landscape or habitat attributes in declining woodland birds. Journal of Avian Biology 44, 45-54. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-048X.2012.05746.x

Likens, G.E. (2010). The role of science in decision making: does evidence-based science drive environmental policy? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 8, e1-e9. doi: 10.1890/090132

Nichols, J.D. (2012). Evidence, models, conservation programs and limits to management. Animal Conservation 15, 331-333. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-1795.2012.00574.x

Sutherland, W.J., Pullin, A.S., Dolman, P.M., Knight, T.M. (2004). The need for evidence-based conservation. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19, 305-308. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2004.03.018

4 thoughts on “Is Conservation Ecology Destroying Ecology?

  1. Mike Braysher

    I agree Charley, certainly in Australia the focus has been on conserving individual species (quolls, bettongs, marla, bilby etc). Often the reason for the programs is as you say, well we have to do something without considering whether the work s feasible or practical. It seems more to be driven by passion than good science. It is at it worse with captive breeding and rewilding (translocation) programs. While there are sound criteria that can help guide these programs IUCN Translocation Criteria (see AWMS position statement on translocation for conservation https://www.awms.org.au/translocation-for-conservation ) there seems little evidence that these criteria are given little more than lip service. Many programs have no clearly defined (read measurable) goals, neither medium nor long term. Often there seems to be little critical analysis to determine the factors that have led to the decline nor indeed whether it is practical to manage these factors. In the species mentioned earlier, it is usually assumed that the cause is one or more exotic predators (feral cat and/or fox). Less consideration appears to be given to other factors such as the impact of reduced available habitat or degraded habitat being a major contributing cause. This degradation of what is remaining of the habitat might be through inappropriate fire management, selective logging, grazing by stock (especially in the arid rangeland), introduced and native herbivores, and/or decreased effective rainfall resulting in sub-optimal habitat. The result is that many populations of endangered natives are only maintained by (expensive) captive rearing programs with captive reared animals (often with little innate predator sense) being maintained in perpetuity behind predator proof fencing. Is this conservation? In the case of bilbies, only now is it being realised by some that the focus on their captive rearing and predator fencing is not a long-term solution. Studies are now looking at where bilbies populations reside in their original range and to try and learn from studies to determine why they have survived and how this knowledge can be applied to areas where they have disappeared.

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  2. Tony George

    Mike, that’s a really interesting take on the current situation. My take, for what it’s worth; our generation has utterly failed in conservation (ie yours and my demographic ~ of being in the conservation game for a long time and now pushing retirement!). We’ve come up with a lot of theories and tinkered with the edges of actually maintaining biodiversity, and we’ve written a lot of processs and strategies, that are mostly unusable in the real world, but we haven’t properly engaged or enthused the public. And for that, we’ve failed. The younger generation of conservation scientists aren’t willing to accept the same course, and are trying bolder approaches, often with great effect. As for a focus on single species (eg bettongs), well a single species is part of an ecosystem, so your argument doesn’t really pass the strawman test. We do need to put effort and resources into these single species if we are going to rebuild ecosystems. As far as I’m aware, all Australian translocations have to be assessed via a translocation plan – and most of these would certainly refer to IUCN or similar criteria and have benchmarks of success that are by necessity, built into the document. I understand you aren’t a particular fan, probably because you see these bold interesting projects getting more recognition than some of your projects – however I’d urge you to embrace the change, because what you and I have been doing in conservation more broadly for the past 50 years just hasn’t worked. Yours in conservation.

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    1. Mike Braysher

      Tony, I agree that we have tinkered at the edges and not embraced the community. Effective stakeholder engagement leading to joint ownership is something that I have promoted for decades with limited success. As for single species approach as a former wildlife biologist, I have seen many hundreds of species recovery or action plans that have gone nowhere. NSW has a team that is dedicated to writing plans for the several thousand species and communities that have been listed. Ministers laud the release of a new one but that is where they mostly sit, un funded or inadequately funded. Further I have seen several that independently deal with individual threatened species in the same habitat where the actions to save one conflict with the conservation of others. To give one example, in the ACT high country they have aerial baited for pigs supposedly to help conserve corrobboree frogs when the areas also contains broad-toothed rats and smokey mouse. When I pointed out the conflict I was told that they would consider the threats to the endangered rodents when they got to developing recovery plans for them AND that they would drop the 1080 baits (great rodenticide) carefully! As for most adopting IUCN translation for conservation criteria, I have an honours student assessing past and current translocation programs. Proponents were either not willing to discuss their project (one the IUCN criteria is about openness) or where they did, most did not meet the IUCN criteria. As Charley says, when asked why they embarked on the program, most said, well we had to try something and most did not have clear objectives. Further most had made assumptions about the factor (and usually it was only one or two) that had caused the initial decline without considering other such as drying habitat, inappropriate burning regime, degraded habitat etc. Also if they listed exotic predators they had no clear idea how to manage them except behind predator proof fences or with extensive continuous baiting – forever. Besides being very expensive, as Western Shield has shown, while just tackling foxes had initial success, there has been a major decline in numbats, woylies etc despite more intensive baiting. There was a similar finding in the Otways. I suspect that global warming is playing a major role as a recent BOM/CSIRO report showed that in both areas there has been approximately a 20% or greater reduction in effective rainfall over the last 15-20 years. As most of the species under threat feed on fungi or soil dwelling invertebrates, I suspect that this must also be considered a likely cause. But many refuse to accept this I guess because they realise that there is little that they can we do about it. Easier to blame a feral cats even though there is no evidence that they have increased following fox control. Besides if it was due to cats, we have no effective landscape method to manage them. This is what I mean by taking a holistic approach to the problem, considering all the factors that are likely to have been involved and addressing those that are critical. By the way, if you know of programs that have fully addressed the IUCN criteria for their programs, and where the managers would be open to a interview from my honours student, I would be pleased to have their details.

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  3. Marco Mello

    Congrats for this important critique. On the one hand, no ecologist denies that we need to conserve our natural resources and respect all other lifeforms. On the other hand, conservation has turned into some kind of academic religion in the past decades, with dogmas, rites, and codes of conduct. It is worrisome to see some conservationists pushing their agenda very aggressively in journals and funding agencies. “What is the implication of your findings for conservation?”. “What is the problem of exaggerating the importance of this particular species to the public, if it will help save its entire habitat?”. “How can you state that those amazing animals can be reservoirs for viruses?”. Sadly, examples of this kind of biased behavior abound.

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