How to Save a Species in Theory

Agency reports claim a million species are at risk of extinction. The handful of conservation success stories are overwhelmed by news of continued logging activities and wetland drainage. Backward environmental policies remain the norm. But the psychologists tell us to be positive! The doom-and-gloom approach doesn’t work apparently. The passengers on the titanic don’t like to be informed how cold the water is going to be. It really puts a downer on the party atmosphere. If you are looking to curry favor with the masses, you will fare much better if you sell the myriad benefits ecosystems provide, or extol the majesty of nature. We live in the age of spin after all.

One of my favorite positive terms in conservation is ‘adaptive management’. It is reminiscent of Orwellian newspeak. What it really means is that we have no idea what we are doing, so it will take a few goes before we get it right. Conservation is a crisis discipline. Many species have already disappeared. Many management decisions are implemented so belatedly as to be redundant. Whilst it is true that we haven’t figured everything out yet (spoiler alert, we never will), it is also true that inaction is no longer an option. It hasn’t been for some time. Adaptive management accommodates learning on the fly; as we improve our understanding of the natural systems we are hoping to save, we refine our management practices accordingly. Adaptive management is an exercise in humility.

The early years of sea turtle conservation were a complete disaster. Although well-intentioned, efforts were at best futile, and at worst destructive. Our first seemingly sensible idea was to recover eggs from nests to incubate in controlled conditions, in the hope of increasing hatching success / reducing nest predation. Sea turtles however, like many reptiles as we now know, exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination. We were unwittingly creating and releasing nothing but males, and it doesn’t take a scientist to work out where that situation will lead: total sausage-fest. On discovering this SNAFU, we adapted our management, whereby fencing to protect nests in situ is now the dominant practice. A step in the  right direction, but it is time to adapt again.

Turtles are long lived, and females can lay hundreds of eggs each year. Thus there is a lot of redundancy built into the life-cycle. Mass mortality of young does not jeopardize the health of the population appreciably, and indeed the natural history of these animals is specifically designed to accommodate lots of eggs/hatchlings being eaten. As mammals with very low reproductive outputs and high offspring survival, we struggle to reconcile the idea that juveniles are dispensable. But in sea turtles, as well as haddock, toads, and oak trees,  this is the case. These species can afford catastrophic reproductive failure; they assume it is going to happen, and hence lay thousands, sometime millions of eggs in their lifetime.

The Achilles heel of such ultra-fecund animals is often increases in adult mortality. In the case of sea turtles, the real reason for their decline was too many mature females colliding with boat propellers, or getting tangled in fishing nets. For every female that dies of unnatural causes, you lose perhaps 50 years of egg-laying potential. Moms are precious. For the same reason, an oak tree is far more integral to the forest than any acorn. For species with this kind of life history, conservation will get the most bang for its buck if it can target older individuals. Unfortunately in the case of sea turtles, beaches are much easier to access than the open ocean; turtle-excluder devices have been introduced to some modern fishing practices, but the emphasis of conservation efforts remains largely on nests and hatchlings.

The cuteness of baby turtles undoubtedly also plays a role in this bias. Members of the public are willing to volunteer to help the babies, and even if hatchlings are released to their certain death, and no discernible improvement to the population occurs, it makes people feel good about themselves. Attitudes are difficult to change, but the success of conservation needs to be taken more seriously. All the baby sea turtles in the world will scarcely make a dent on population recovery; we have known this since the 1980s, but the word is still not out. Perhaps it is our fault, scientists’ fault, for not better communicating our theoretical understanding of life-histories to the public. Regardless, forty years of ineffectual management is not something we can afford for every species on the brink of extinction. If we don’t improve, conservation successes will appear nothing more than a speck – a small leathery shell cast adrift amidst an ocean of failure. But like I said, we’re told we need to be positive.

How to Save an Evolutionarily Significant Unit

Geneticists don’t like species. And to be fair, there are as many definitions of a ‘species’ as there are scientists. What’s a ‘species’ when bacteria are concerned? The term is meaningless. Even a lot of plants and fungi defy our traditional concepts. The closer we study nature, the more cracks begin to appear. But don’t worry, that’s exactly how science is supposed to work. Our understanding gradually improves with each discovery, and our description of the natural world is refined. Nobody said science was speedy. We are far more concerned with accuracy. And the geneticists tell us that if we want to be accurate, we need to stop talking about species.

Many of the foundational pillars of conservation were devised by geneticists. Many of our management methods arose with genetic viability in mind. Captive rearing and species reintroduction efforts take care to avoid inbreeding and outbreeding depressions. The 50/500 rule, infamous in the field of conservation, in part seeks to combat the loss of genetic material through drift. And nowadays, if you read modern recovery plans for threatened and endangered species, you’ll struggle to find the word ‘species’. Curious. The language has shifted in the last few decades; we now concern ourselves with ‘evolutionarily significant units’. You can see why it hasn’t caught on in day to day parlance. Not very pithy, I’ll admit, but again we are going for accuracy, and conservation biology in particular, is above all else concerned with success.

The geneticists tell us that if we ignore ESUs, we risk constant and repeated failure. Moreover, we may not even realize we have failed until it is too late. Indeed one of the greatest challenges in conservation is measuring your impact, i.e. quantifying success. California condors have increased from around 20 individuals in the 1970’s to 300 individuals at the time of writing. Sounds pretty successful. But if these birds disappear in a century’s time, have we achieved anything? Even the entirety of human history is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, so to see conservation goals only extending over decades, as opposed to millennia, is somewhat troubling. The geneticists are much better at long-term thinking. Not only do they think in timescales more in line with natural processes, but they also seek to preserve the raw materials that allow organisms to persist in perpetuity. Surely this must be the ultimate goal of conservation – self-sufficiency. We must see the return of biological communities that do not require human intervention; we must safeguard organisms that can adapt to future conditions, and survive environmental perturbations. If this is not achieved, can we really claim success?

Any species (sorry, ESU, old habits…) or ecosystem that cannot sustain itself without constant supervision is not long for this earth. It won’t be cheap to get nature back on its feet, but this must be weighed against the cost of indefinite management. I would argue the latter is ruinously expensive. Prohibitively expensive. The longer we argue over the economics of conservation, the worse the situation becomes. The price of our ambivalence grows with each passing day. We can no longer afford to be idle on this issue. I’m not sure we could ever afford it. Many animals and biological systems currently hang by a thread. Indeed some fear that the wanton destruction of the environment in recent years has made self-sufficiency a pipe dream. But in the immortal words of Richard Hofstadter, “in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that this is not so.”

Over geological epochs, generations turnover like dominoes as successful genotypes march through time. This is the most accurate view of the world we have. For conservation to be successful we must plan on colossal timescales, because we are attempting to preserve colossal processes.  For now ESUs apply to populations within a species range that harbor unique genetic lineages or represent separate fishing stocks. In time we will apply the ESU concept to predator-prey guilds and ecosystems. Genetics reminds us to manage the natural world on a timescale that nature understands.

How to Save a Species in Court

The federal government is legally obliged to fork out money to save species. Despite the best efforts of the current administration, and of republicans since time immemorial, US environmental policy remains the envy of the world. Whilst there are older pieces of conservation legislation, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is by far the most famous. This act commands the government to provide funds for the management of endangered species until they are no longer endangered. This altogether seems like a good idea, because god knows they would not hand over the money willingly. Many politicians are in the pockets of fossil fuel companies, and thus protection of the environment is seldom a priority, nor a tenable party line. For this tenuous arrangement to have any chance of success, we must be clear as to which species are endangered, and how we determine when this is no longer true. These are not trivial tasks. Navigating the legal system to propose a candidate species for listing status is hard enough. Achieving recovery goals when the forests continue to be cleared, and strip malls continue to be built, is a veritable nightmare.

Let’s start with listing. In order for a species to be considered endangered, there must exist sufficient information on the organism’s biology and the threats that jeopardize its continued existence. The burden of proof is on the scientists to demonstrate that the species has declined, and is in imminent danger of going extinct. Essentially, we must show that intervention, and therefore federal funding, is necessary. Species status assessments are typically hundreds of pages long, subject to a public comment period, and scrutinized by the best legal minds in the country. Despite such stringent criteria, we actually have a backlog of ‘candidate’ species; species that qualify for endangered status, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to get round to. I think this says something about the current state of the planet; a savage indictment if ever I’ve seen one.

Many species that have been listed continue to decline because no recovery plan exists that outlines the steps needed to delist. By law, this recovery plan must be formulated within five years of the listing decision, but if the USFWS is overwhelmed (and given that the most recent estimates put over 1 million species at risk of extinction, ‘overwhelmed’ is their new default), endangered species can sit idle for decades. Indeed the situation is so bad, concerned parties are often forced to sue the federal government for its inaction, in the hope of chivying things along. The squeakiest wheel gets the oil. The species I studied for my PhD, the reticulated flatwoods salamander, was first listed in 1999. A codified recovery plan still does not exist for the species. We have sued the USFWS at least twice. There is no guarantee that these animals will still be around when the money finally starts to roll in.

But perhaps I shouldn’t complain too vehemently. By all rights, the ESA is not strictly constitutional. In 1913, the Migratory Bird Act was introduced, largely owing to the concern of duck hunters at recent declines in waterfowl (who would’ve thunk it ay? If you shoot all the birds, there won’t be as many next year). Less than 12 months later however, the act was deemed unconstitutional, owing to it violating states’ rights by essentially granting ownership of birds to the federal government. I am torn on this decision. As a liberal, I approve of limiting all forms of power; the people that scare me the most are the politicians, the priests, and the police officers. But as a biologist, I don’t want to see the ducks go extinct. Luckily, rather than scrapping the law altogether, they sought a loophole. In 1918 the Migratory Bird Treaty was enacted, an international agreement between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Such a multinational pact circumvents the power dynamic inherent in the US political system and grants the federal government license to do pretty much whatever it wants. I don’t understand it either, but I take solace in the fact that nobody does.

Given the rigmarole involved in establishing protection for birds, one would think more than half a century later, when plans were being drawn up for the protection of all animals, a similar kerfuffle could be easily avoided. I believe they call it ‘precedent’ in legalese. But if you thought that, you’d be a fool. When I was first taught the history of environmental legislation in North America, during the pursuit of my doctorate degree, my immediate and genuinely innocent question as an ignorant foreigner was: “why then is it not the Endangered Species Treaty?” No answer was forthcoming. Curious. The ESA has stood relatively unchallenged for almost fifty years, so perhaps it’s not a big deal, but it just seems peculiar, and not to mention rather risky, to base so much of our environmental policy on such shaky legal foundations. The ESA has achieved a tremendous amount of good work in its history, but if someone truly wants to besmirch this piece of legislation, I’m not sure we can defend it.

For now, the money continues to flow. We still have a bias problem, whereby most of the funding is earmarked for a handful of charismatic species; bald eagles and Florida panthers receive more federal dollars than some entire groups of animals. But the public are perhaps more to blame than the government on that front. Perceptions of animals are tightly linked to how much effort we are willing to expend to protect them. Stricter emission policies and broader protections for wildlife will be essential as we progress through the 21st century. The system is far from perfect, but laws are far from immutable. The law is a work in progress; it used to be illegal to be gay. In many countries it still is. Laws must be constantly updated in step with the march of society. Environmental law is no different. I blame Religion for our backward take on justice, but I am already over my word limit, so I’m not opening that can of worms. After all, blasphemy is a crime in some places. I’ll see you in court.

How to Save a Species’ Habitat

If we continue the wanton destruction of the natural world, it will scarcely matter how much money you have, we will all be impoverished. No area of the planet is untouched by man (and I do mean men). Not the deepest deep-sea trench, nor the highest peak in the Himalayas. Not even the atmosphere is beyond reach. From where I write in southwest Virginia, my back porch looks out onto a fabulous sea of green. These are some of the richest, most ebullient forests in the temperate world, and the view is spellbinding. But here too, the discerning eye can pick out certain cracks in the picture that have formed in recent history. There are objects on the canvas that don’t belong. English walnut, Chinese chestnut, and Norway maple clutter the ocean of trees. European starlings and house sparrows occasionally monopolize the bird feeders, in a tumultuous way reminiscent of British tourists. In 2020, we have finally come face to face with the impact of unchecked human travel. We unwittingly transport novel pathogens to new continents, and we intentionally introduce species outside of their native range for our own selfish fancies. Clearly this has to stop.

Invasive species pose a particular challenge for the conservationist. Firstly, it highlights the flaws of simply ring-fencing an area of land in the hope of protecting it. The creation of a national park, say, doesn’t really address the problem. This is not to mention the rather imperialistic overtones of such land-grabbing activities; pretty much all protected areas in the US required the forcible eviction of Native American communities for their establishment. And conservationists have the nerve to call themselves the good guys. But that’s a story for another day. For the vast majority of threatened and endangered species, the primary agent of their decline has been habitat loss. It is often a zero-sum game; the species I studied for my PhD, the incomparable reticulated flatwoods salamander, has declined by 97% because, you guessed it, 97% of the forests they once inhabited have been chopped down. It seems obvious then, that restoration of habitat should be a key priority of conservation endeavours, but expectations must be tempered. The forests outside my window were clear-cut less than a century ago. They are far from natural. But are they good enough? Most invasive species will never be eradicated, and indeed much of the environmental damage wrought by human beings is irreversible. Where are the goalposts?

Restoration is necessary, but unfortunately nobody can agree on what we should be restoring. Some cling on to lauded hopes of pristine wilderness, others are more conciliatory. My approach is to shoot for the moon; aim high and even if we fail to meet targets, we will have done some good. The people with the check-books don’t like this of course, and policy makers don’t like setting unachievable objectives. Well not every policy maker; Donald insisted Mexico was going to pay for that wall… But if we can afford 2,000 miles of bricks and mortar, surely we can rustle up the funds to save something as important as the environment, whatever we deem the environment to be. We could invest in barriers, or we could invest in the future of the planet. It’s our choice. It is still difficult for me to comprehend, as a conservation biologist, that part of my job involves arguing the case for the natural world. Yeah, nature’s pretty important. But sadly nature currently looks like Jake LaMotta after going thirteen rounds with Sugar Ray. Bruised, battered, and bloodied. And this is real life; there’s no guarantee of a miraculous Rocky-style comeback. There is no bell to save us. The world is on its ass, and the referee has started to count.

Indeed, this is why I’m not entirely sold on the term “conservation”. At this point it is not good enough to simply conserve what we still have. Wholesale restoration is an imperative to secure the long term prospects of the natural world. We must dig new ponds and create new wetlands. We must replant the forests, and we must re-establish the grazing dynamics of the American prairie and the African plains. We must mitigate the impacts of invasive species, and take measures to prevent new invasives from establishing. Of course, this isn’t going to be cheap. If we had done this a century ago, it wouldn’t have been nearly as expensive. A stitch in time, and all that jazz. We have been ignoring the tears in the fabric of nature for far too long, but there’s no point crying over spilled milk. Hindsight after all, is 2020. We must act, before it really is too late. The earth is bleeding out, and rather ironically, we can no longer afford to be miserly. Empty your pockets, or the world will empty them for you.