Triage

At ConservationBytes, Corey’s reviewing the idea of conservation/ecological triage, and does a good job of covering the pros and cons of the argument. I just wanted to add that there’s an interesting conversation in the current issue of TREE about this very topic. Spurred by an article from December (“Is conservation triage just smart decision making?” Bottrill et al., TREE: 23:649-654), a number of people wrote responses both for and against.

In the pro camp:

  • Darryl MacKenzie (“Getting the biggest bang for our conservation buck,” TREE, 24: 175-177). Key quote: “The more limited the resources, the greater the desire should be to use those resources as wisely as possible.”
  • Daniel Faith (“Phylogenetic triage, efficiency and risk aversion,” TREE, 24: 182). Maybe a cautious pro-, this letter more deals with the methodological problems of triage, highlighting the importance of phylogenetic diversity.

In the anti camp:

  • Jachowski and Kesler (“Allowing extinction: should we let species go?” TREE, 24: 180). I’ll quote them quoting Aldo Leopold: “The first rule of an intelligent tinkerer is to keep all the pieces.”
  • Parr et al., write under the banner of the Alliance for Zero Extinctions (“Why we should aim for zero extinction,” TREE, 24: 181). “A narrow triage approach might have written off the Whooping Crane, the population of which stood at 15 individuals in the early 20th century; however, thanks to conservation efforts, >500 cranes now survive. There are many similar examples.”

And, of course, the original authors in defense. Bottrill et al., “Finite conservation funds mean triage is unavoidable,” TREE, 24: 183-184).

Phew! I think the key argument that Bottrill et al. highlight in their response is that we need to separate this conversation between messaging and action. Actual triage — that practiced on the battlefiled — is accepted because it is seen as the best possible outcome to save as many lives as possible. The assumption is that human life is fundamentally important, and that death is objectively bad. You don’t (or at least I haven’t) seen any “Pro-Life” people protesting MASH units, and that’s because triage acts within a framework of trying to preserve as many human lives as possible. What makes conservationists nervous about ecological triage is that it might send the wrong message: that extinction might be acceptable. I think it’s a valid point from a messaging standpoint, but pragmatically, triage really is (tautologically) the optimal solution to preventing extinction.

On the other hand, Parr et al., write quite convincingly that triage might not be the best metaphor. If we humans were so inclined, no species would have to go extinct because of us, and whooping cranes, American bison, peregrine falcons, &c. &c. are great examples that sufficient effort really can turn around a critical situation.

What is generally not discussed in this conversation is how funding plays a role. Conservation organizations are (non-profit) businesses, and like any business, they take action based on economics. They are restricted by limited funds, and they make decisions all the time about what, where and how to prioritize their resources. The part of the equation that is typically left out is how conservation prioritizing might result in additional funds for the organization. A panda bear is a much more attractive logo than some abstract notion of phylogenetic diversity. Picture a plot with one axis being “conservation effectiveness” and the other axis being “funds recouped.” Somewhere in there is a sweet spot where you’re earning a lot of money to pay for on-going projects, while still doing effective conservation. I imagine most people in our field have an idea in their head of where each big conservation NGO falls.

In other words, I think this is really a conversation about funding. Some people are arguing that if you don’t ask for enough money to stop all extinctions, you’ll never get that much money. Others are saying that, within the amount of funding available, we need to prioritize. In terms of messaging, the former are correct. In terms of action, the latter are.

Posted by Tim on March 27th, 2009 • • Comments Off

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