Overly specific requirements in conservation policies may be unintentionally wasting management resources and doing more harm than good for the species and landscapes they seek to protect, according to a new opinion paper published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
The paper, authored by a group of researchers including Stephen Jackson, Director of the Department of the Interior Southwest Climate Science Center, urges a move away from narrowly prescriptive conservation policies to a bigger-picture, dynamic approach to conservation management.
Precision is attractive to scientists and policymakers alike because it leads to clear objectives and provides straightforward, quantifiable metrics against which to measure success. As a result, many conservation policies, including those to manage plants and wildlife listed under the Endangered Species Act, currently dictate a narrow set of management actions and outcomes.
For example, conservation managers may need to modify a forest’s structure to meet the exact tree size and density requirements that have been determined optimal habitat for a species. Similarly, most river restoration projects culminate in rivers that have the same shape and channel structure.
However, the paper’s authors caution, these overly specific conservation targets can have unintended negative consequences.
For one thing, they may prompt managers to undertake costly alterations of habitat that might already be suitable for a species. The red-cockaded woodpecker, a bird listed as endangered since the 1970s, is just one example of a species that currently occupies a much wider range of habitat than what is deemed “optimal” by its recovery plan. Managers are frequently required to intervene in forest areas that currently support healthy red-cockaded woodpecker populations in order to bring these habitats in line with the recovery plan requirements. Such efforts unnecessarily expend time, money and management resources.
Furthermore, managing areas to look and function the same way may result in an overall loss in habitat and biological diversity. Diversity is important for helping species buffer and adapt to environmental change – and it may be especially critical for helping species and their habitats adapt to the unfolding effects of climate change.
The authors make the case that conservation policy frameworks ought to adopt a more open and dynamic approach to setting conservation targets. To match the realities of a changing world, policies should be able to adapt to new circumstances and quickly incorporate better information as it becomes available. By collaborating closely and stepping outside of the precision bubble, scientists, policymakers and managers have a better chance of achieving conservation and restoration goals and being efficient in the process.