Time to choose which species to save

Some of the world’s leading population biologists are arguing that it is not possible to save all threatened species from extinction without significant increases in funding. They argue that we need to be looking at habitat and ecosystem protection as a focus over just saving individual species.

The fossil record shows that species do go extinct from time to time for reasons that have nothing at all to do with human impacts.  Of course, we still should do everything we can to minimise our impacts and allow room for nature to prosper. However, we also need to recognise that is impossible to control the natural world and hold it in stasis.

Tradeoffs are required if we’re to maintain any balance.

For example, we could concentrate efforts on the most threatened species. But the price we would pay is that more species will slip onto the threatened species list; and few (if any) species will ever be removed from that list. Alternatively, we could let the most threatened species go extinct, and concentrate on recovering less-threatened species or stopping other species becoming threatened. But with the money available now, it is not possible to do both.

The idea of determining which species to save is referred to as conservation triage, borrowing from term that was first used during World War I to determine the level of medical effort for different casualties.

The challenge with moving to this approach is that our past management and current governance systems are very species-based.

For over twenty years, the approach of governments at all levels to native resource management has been about tightening regulations. All stick and no carrot. No recognition of the positive land management and ecosystem services that many farmers provide to the community. Not to mention the socialised carbon sequestration they provide.

Most government bureaucrats and environmental activists see nature conservation as a ‘them and us’ situation.  In this view, public environmental assets held in private hands are the responsibility of the land-owner, generally farmers. They are prevented by legislation from doing anything that would detract from the value of the public asset; and must also bear the costs of preserving and in many cases enhancing these public assets.

As a result, farmers bear a disproportionate share of the cost of protecting and maintaining environmental assets. In fact, often they are expected to undertake conservation measures that carry with them considerable costs, but where the benefit is to the wider community. This is patently unfair.

For governments, this approach is simple and cheap. But we know it doesn’t work, because the official assessments show that biodiversity has continued to decline.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So, if we’re going to make any progress in protecting biodiversity, we must shift to incentive-based systems that work.

This means that, if we as a public want these things saved, we have to be prepared to pay at least part of the costs.

Market-based conservation or stewardship programs are well established in North America and Europe. There are also programs in parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Such programs are a way of creating positive economic incentives for natural resource managers to manage their land and activities in ways that improve or maintain environmental health. These might include restoring habitat for endangered species, improving water quality and availability through catchment protection, or sequestering carbon in biomass or soils.

Mark Rey, former Under-Secretary in the US Department of Agriculture, summarised the benefits of using market-based approaches as follows:

“Market-based conservation is an innovative way to … preserve productivity and enhance landowner livelihoods, while producing numerous environmental benefits. Market-based solutions can provide flexibility to undertake actions that have the lowest cost and result in more cost-effective achievement of natural resource conservation and environmental goals compared to traditional command and control approaches. … I look forward to the day when credits for clean water, lower levels of greenhouse gases, and protected wetlands can be traded as freely as corn or soybeans are today.”

In such a scenario, successful stewards of threatened species should be rewarded by those who value them. In fact, threatened species can be a vehicle for supporting rural, regional and remote communities, communities which are currently draining away towards the cities for want of employment opportunities.

Using this approach, it is easy to imagine a future where management of threatened species can sit alongside other rural industries in a green economy.





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