Who’s to Blame

Rhett Butler and William Laurance have written an interesting piece in TREE on strategies for conservation of tropical forests. They suggest that the main driver of deforestation at this point is not local people but rather multi-national corporations. Although this drastically changes the rate and scale at which land is being degraded, it also provides more direct pressure points through which conservation organizations can act. It’s much easier (and, honestly, politically feasible) to demand that a giant corporation stop cutting trees than indigenous people. Maybe that’s why Malaysia has decided to place the blame for deforestation on the locals?

Butler, R. and W. Laurance. New strategies for conserving tropical forests. TREE. 23:9. (doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.05.006)

Posted by Tim on November 24th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Thoreau Followup

I’d like to respond to Brian’s post about the recent study on shifts in abundance of flowers in Concord over the past 150 years. One theme I’ve been trying to think through these past few months is how we think about conservation and biodiversity: what are we trying to save? How are we doing it? How are we feeling about the future, and what are the consequences?

As I read it, Brian’s really talking throughout about cultural memory: what we as humans highlight. From the Times’ predilection for climate change to the naturalist’s collecting strategy, we all have intuitive filters that preserve some memories while tossing off others. Maybe this is obvious, but the paper published in PNAS, “Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change” is about exactly that, but written in the world of climate and genes. The authors found that not only have plants in Concord experienced fairly dramatic shifts in abundance and phenology (timing of life cycles, e.g. flowering time), but that there was a significant genetic component to such effects. That is to say, if you find that one species of aster in Concord isn’t keeping up with climate change, it’s flowering later than it should and suffering the consequences, it’s likely that other asters are experiencing the very same problems. Just as the stories we tell are being shaped and categorized, so too is nature filtering the flowers we study.

Okay, it’s not a new idea. Richard Dawkins did a pretty nice job summing it all up in The Selfish Gene when he coined the whole “meme” idea — that cultural memory was shaped by evolutionary pressures, and that some ideas/arts/governments/&c. were better able to survive and reproduce than others.

We are about to experience, in the natural world, what amounts to a massive cultural revolution. Things that are now abundant may not be abundant in 100 years. Things that are rare may explode and thrive. And yet, I believe that historians and those who study the anthropology of science would say that by observing those processes, we (conservation biologists) are also influencing our understanding of those rapid changes. We as scientists suffer from an inability to say how rapidly nature changes under “normal” conditions. Paradoxically, we as humans also suffer from short attention spans and are easily confused by shifting baselines. That is to say: on a cultural level, I don’t think we’ve quite come to grips with how terrifying the next century could be, given the chance that current climate models are gross under-predictions of potential future change. But I also feel that on a scientific level, we don’t have a good grip on how biodiversity shifts over those time spans.

Imagine, if you will, the massive changes that have occurred in Brian’s current locale and mine. Just 13,000 years ago, Brian would be under 5 miles of ice; 13,000 years ago, I could walk from my home in Berkeley out to the Golden Gate and not get wet. And yet all those plants that Thoreau was writing about were somewhere in or around Concord, and they remain. Not to get all Crichton/Goldblum-y, but life really does find a way.

A final metaphor. In I think the first episode of Cosmos, Carl Sagan said that if he had a time machine, he would travel back to the Library of Alexandria. He wanted to know what the ancient world knew, to explore not just their science but also their culture. It’s thought that for every ancient epic we still have records of, 5, 10 or 100 may have been lost. But it doesn’t really matter whether there are fifty or a million copies of The Aeneid floating around — it still exists, and you can still read it. If you make bad enough decisions in high school, you may end up even translating parts of it from the original Latin. What we have saved, we have saved, and what we have lost is forgotten forever. Much like with biodiversity: it’s not the abundances that matter, it’s the binary: present or absent. Extant or extinct.

Willis, C. et al. Phylogenetic patterns of species loss in Thoreau’s woods are driven by climate change. PNAS, 105:44. (doi: 10.1072/pnas.0806446105)

[A related paper that I didn’t manage to work in but is worth checking out along the same lines, examining small mammal range shifts in Yosemite over the past 100 years was published in Science a few weeks ago: Mortiz, C. et al. Impact of a Century of Climate Change on Small-Mammal Communities in Yosemite National Park, USA. Science, 322:10. doi: 10.1126/science.1163428)

Posted by Tim on November 3rd, 2008 • • 1 comment
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Emergency Conservation

This is a post about conservation priorities, in which we discuss the possibility that the number of publications about how to alllocate conservation funds has a large and significant correlation with the amount of funds available, or alternatively where said publications grow steadily regardless of the current financial climate. In a paper in press at TREE, a slew of Australian authors (through a workshop hosted at the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis (AEDA) Centre at the University of Queensland, Australia) argue that conservation triage is not just an effective use of conservation funds, but the most efficient. I think others might disagree (I’m guessing that the Kakapo is kind of the SW Pacific’s answer to the CA Condor). Here is their conclusion:

Efficient resource allocation relies upon clear goals for what we hope our actions will achieve for biodiversity conservation. Decision making based on the principles of triage provides a defensible, rational and repeatable approach to prioritising conservation investments. By explicitly acknowledging the use of triage as a process for efficient resource allocation, we are able to clearly understand and scrutinise the tradeoffs resulting from investing in one action over another, thereby increasing confidence in investments. If doctors are willing to use triage in allocating resources to save human lives, why would conservation biologists be squeamish?

Maybe I’m missing something, but what the hell? Don’t get me wrong, the emergency room is a fantastic resource, but it’s not how I want my health care, and it’s not how any reasonable health care system should be designed. When people ask, “Which conservation organization is doing the best work?” I tend to answer: most of them. That’s the nice thing about a diversity of NGOs. Some have narrow missions that do targeted conservation triage, while others work in long-term biodiversity hot spots to ensure the continued safety of those regions, while still others target the root causes of environmental harm. I just don’t see the need to say that one is more important than the other. It’s also probably a fallacy to believe that money available to one organization would necessarily be available to another. As little influence we as scientists have over governmental policy, the idea that we could shift donor money from one “sub-optimal” organization to a “better” one is lunacy.

To be fair, this paper may be saying that all conservation is triage, but that practitioners need to be explicit about the trade-offs they’re making. I guess I just don’t see that as an issue. All big conservation organizations have been forced, mostly through the efforts of large donors, to define very explicitly how they approach conservation. When the efforts of an organization stray from their stated goals, it’s usually (as this paper acknowledges) because of other pressures from both within and outside the organization.

How about an example. TNC is an organization with about $5bn in assets. That’s a lot of money. They do work all over the globe, generally (maybe sometimes only theoretically) tailored to the demands on the ground. When the Ivory-billed woodpecker was “spotted” in Arkansas, TNC quietly started to buy up land in that region. They did so knowing that as soon as word got out that the area would be protected, land prices would probably go up. They were in a position to do so because they have TONS OF CASH. Now, I suppose in this case the authors of the paper and I would agree that this is an instance of triage that is good and necessary. But the point is that TNC couldn’t do triage if it didn’t have a stable organization doing its day-to-day thing. There was no way to anticipate the “re-discovery” of the Lord God bird, so there was no way for a local organization to be set up in time to start buying the land. To follow the metaphor, you can’t send out the ambulance without the hospital.

Bottrill, M. et al. Is conservation triage just smart decision making? TREE, in press. (doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.07.007)

Posted by Tim on October 23rd, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Poverty & Conservation

This month, Oryx has a number of articles on the role of conservation in poverty alleviation, including a review of their intertwining history by Dilys Roe, “a Senior Researcher in the the International Institute for Environment and Development’s Natural Resources Group, specialising in biodiversity.” There’s also a paper by Kent Redford et al. that looks specifically at where poverty and biodiversity intersect by using a spatially-explicit dataset from CIESIN of infant mortality rates and the Human Footprint. They find that a disproprtionate percentage of the world’s poor live in places most transformed by humans. Redford and his colleagues at WCS (continue to) suggest that while conservation and poverty alleviation can work hand in hand, there are plenty of other NGOs tasked specifically dealing with the latter, and that conservation organizations should be focused on conserving biodiversity first and foremost. I’ll leave the eloquence to them:

Our analysis shows that priority areas for conservation of relatively wild nature coincide with areas inhabited by relatively few of the world’s poorest people (< 0.5%). As a result, substantially retooling conservation organizations to deliver poverty alleviation goals would produce only marginal gains at the global scale and would severely compromise conservation missions. Many of the policy pronouncements linking poverty alleviation and conservation currently being proposed do not recognize this fact.

However, although the relative percentage of poor people is small, there are still c. 16 million poor people living in the world’s remotest regions. They are orphans of the major development assistance programmes because of their remoteness and low population densities. These same factors draw conservation organizations to the areas where they live, giving potential to an unusual synergy between conservation and poverty alleviation goals. Adams et al. (2004) have pointed out that although achieving the goals of both poverty alleviation and conservation is difficult, there may be specific institutional, ecological and developmental circumstances under which this is possible. Wild areas present opportunities to test such circumstances. Impoverishment of both nature and people can serve as a rallying cry for a new socially responsible, long-term approach to conservation of the world’s wildlife and wild places.

Which is to say: if conservation organizations could show that it was possible to protect biodiverse areas while lifting the people living there out of poverty, wouldn’t that just be a great way to show the world that conservation was super cool and worthy of greater effort and resources?

Dilys Roe. The origins and evolution of the conservation-poverty debate: a review of key literature, events and policy processes. Oryx, 42:391-503. (doi: 10.1017/S0030605308002032)

Redford, K. et al. What is the role for conservation organizations in poverty alleviation in the world’s wild places? Oryx, 42:516-528. (doi: 10.1017/S0030605308001889)

Posted by Tim on October 15th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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IUCN Red List

I may have been a bit snarky about the new Red List for mammals earlier in the week, but I have to admit the new paper in Science covering the major findings is rather impressive (maybe it’s just that fresh Science smell that has me convinced, or maybe I should just stop reading press releases). Lots of good stuff here:

Phylogenetic diversity is … is arguably a more relevant currency of diversity and less affected by variations in taxonomic classification than species richness. Species richness and phylogenetic diversity are very closely related for land species (r2 = 0.98), but less so in the marine environment (r2 = 0.73).

The size of land species’ ranges varies from a few hundred square meters (Bramble Cay Melomys, Melomys rubicola; Australia), to 64.7 million km2 (Red Fox, Vulpes vulpes; Eurasia and North America). For marine species, ranges vary from 16,500 km2 (Vaquita, Phocoena sinus; Gulf of California), to 350 million km2 (Killer Whale, Orcinus orca; all oceans). [Good trivia question, that Red Fox bit! --ed.]

For land species, there is a strong association between landmass width and median range size: The largest ranges tend to be found across the widest part of each continent, particularly in northern Eurasia, whereas islands (e.g., in Southeast Asia and the Caribbean) and narrow continental areas (e.g., southern North and South America) tend to have narrowly distributed species. Superimposed on this general pattern, ranges also tend to be small in topographically complex areas (e.g., the Rockies, Andes, and Himalayas). These results agree with those for birds, which suggest that range sizes are constrained by the availability of land area within the climatic zones to which species are adapted.

Very, very, neat stuff.

Okay, what the hell, I’ll take issue with this:

One hundred and fifty-five species were deleted from the original tree: 138 corresponding to taxa no longer recognized as separate species (lumped to another species already on the tree); four for which no match was found; 12 that are Extinct or Extinct in the Wild; and Homo sapiens.

Really? No humans? Why not? I would love to read the IUCN Red List assessment of Homo sapiens:

The Red Fox Man has the widest geographical range of any member of the order Carnivora Primata, being distributed across the entire northern hemisphere from the Arctic Circle to North Africa, Central America, and the Asiatic steppes, and pretty much anywhere else that’s not underwater… okay, and a couple of places that are. Red Foxes Humans are adaptable and opportunistic omnivores and are capable of successfully occupying urban areas (unless your name is Joe SixPack and you are a True American, in which case you are willing to check out urban areas to see a show and go to the Met, aka the “It’s a nice place to visit, but I would never want to live there” theory of range limitation). In many habitats, foxes humans appear to be closely associated with man, even thriving in intensive agricultural areas. The species currently is — barring a serious turnaround in the polls — not under threat.

Schipper, Jan + over 100 others. The Status of the World’s Land and Marine Mammals: Diversity, Threat, and Knowledge. Science, 322:5899. (doi: 10.1126/science.1165115)

Posted by Tim on October 9th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Conspiracies Abound

Wow. In this week’s Science, researchers Jennifer Whitson and Adam Galinsky have shown that when humans lack a sense of control, it increases their perception of patterns where none exist. This is great! I mean, really obvious, but really great. Now there’s evidence for why mediocre pitchers might cling to religion and guns toothbrushes and foul lines; or, according to the article, why “first-year MBA students are more susceptible to conspiratorial perceptions than are second-year students” (no mention of second-year conservation grad students…). Or, perhaps most importantly, why some people believe a missile hit the Pentagon. Wait, strike that, most importantly, why some people thought Saddam Hussein had to go. Somebody help me out — in the comments, can you tell me what this has to do with conservation?

Whitson, J. and A. Galinsky. Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception. Science, 322:5898. (doi: 10.1126/science.1159845)

Posted by Tim on October 2nd, 2008 • • 1 comment
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IUCN Red List Exposed

Heck, that was good timing. In the in press issue of Conservation Biology, Georgina Mace and colleagues give a great overview of the IUCN Red List — its origins, history, and current status; its methods

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and pitfalls (especially good discussion of the issues concerning “Data Deficient” species). The more I think about it, the less I value efforts to use the Red List to assess ecological traits that might pre-condition species for endangerment: many of those traits are highly correlated with the conditions for being Red Listed (e.g. habitat specificity and Criterion B: Small Range Area and Decline). The Red List isn’t a list of species that will go extinct; it’s a list of species that very smart and concerned scientists believe might go extinct based on a number of factors that they believe would pre-condition a species for extinction. So any study using the Red List is inevitably analyzing what those traits are, as defined by the Red List.

And since I mentioned genetic uniqueness in that post about the Red List, here’s a paper by Daniel Faith from the very same issue of Cons Bio discussing the EDGE of existence program: an effort to combine extinction probability with phylogenetic risk. Heavenly.

Mace, G. et al. Quantification of Extinction Risk: IUCN’s System for Classifying Threatened Species. Conservation Biology, in press. (doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01044.x)

Faith, D. Threatened Species and the Potential Loss of Phylogenetic Diversity: Conservation Scenarios Based on Estimated Extinction Probabilities and Phylogenetic Risk Analysis. Conservation Biology, in press. (doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01068.x)

Posted by Tim on September 26th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Live Where I Say, Not Where I Do

Here’s a fascinating article in Conservation Biology (and picked up by Nature) on home location choice and environmental attitudes in the Teton Valley outside Yellowstone. The authors found that the more their respondants cared about the environment, the more likely they were to be living in an environmentally damaging way (i.e. big ranches, small families), whereas people with lower environmentally-oriented attitudes lived in a more sustainable manner, in denser areas closer to town. Interestingly, the authors also found that the longer folks had been living out in the wilderness, the lower their concern for environmental issues.

That second point could, I think, be taken one of two ways: either they’re just finding that people who have lived out in Wyoming and Idaho for 50 years weren’t raised with the same environmental ethos that the recent Hollywod Celebrity Types and the other enviro-carpetbaggers bring with them. I think the more interesting angle would be if people legitimately became less concerned with enviromental issues the longer they’re in a place that’s more “natural.” I think the current crop of American environmental scientists, ecologists, conservationists, etc., were raised in suburbs and exurbs that have changed substantially over the course of our lifetime: seeing the loss of local creeks, small town forests, and trails was, for me, a great motivator. Being able to connect those local issues with global ones pushed me into this science. But there are no doubt areas that are doing just fine, especially if you own the 1,000 acres (404 ha) around you. No development problem there!

I think, also, this article re-highlights the need for a substantial shift in our focus on urban ecology: people who care about environmental issues are driven out of cities because there’s so little nature there. We need to find ways to make city living attractive to people who crave wilderness.

Peterson, M.N. et al. Household Location Choices: Implications for Biodiversity Conservation. Conservation Biology, 22:4. (doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00929.x)

Posted by Tim on September 22nd, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Know When to Hold ‘em, Know When to Fold ‘em, Know When to Stratified Randomly Transect ‘em

In “When to stop managing or surveying cryptic species,” Chades et al. present decision making tools for managers concerned with what conservation action to take. How long should you spend time, money and effort managing a species that might not even be there? Long story short managing is the best approach if it’s a high value species, but if management continues without any sign of a population, it’s worth switching your resources to surveying. If nothing shows up, move on. But before you do any of that, be sure to use a Partially Observable Markov Decision Process to know when those benchmarks occur.

Chades, I. et al. When to stop managing or surveying cryptic threatened species. PNAS, in press. (doi:

Posted by Tim on September 10th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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Biodiversity and Climate Change

Check out this paper in press from Conservation Biology on climate change mitigation, adaptation and biodiversity by James Paterson et al. They describe current responses to climate change as focusing on win-win scenarios for mitigation and adaptation. They suggest, however, that many of these responses would have negative effects on biodiversity. They present a figure of strategies, and how they might fit into “win-win-win” scenarios: that is, good for climate change mitigation, adaptation AND good for biodiversity. Forest conservation, urban tree planting and green rooftops appear to be in the win-win-win category, whereas large dams, new desalination plants and sea-wall defenses are listed as wins for adaptation or mitigation, but losses for biodiversity.

Am I the only one who gets queasy thinking about the tradeoffs that will have to be made in the coming decades when it comes to climate change and biodiversity? On a smaller scale, the discussion regarding biodiversity and climate change is a bit like the current conversation about energy policy. On the one hand, you have folks demanding increased drilling and natural gas production domestically (in the U.S.) and on the other you have the call for investment in renewable energy. I want to call this debate a no-brainer, but that’s precisely the wrong language. One side of the argument actually requires some deep thinking about how to proceed: renewable energy sounds good, but it’s going to be a lot harder to implement. It’s the best solution, but it’s not the easy one.

On the climate change front, I’m reminded of those who want to develop cloud-seeding technologies: more clouds, higher albedo in the upper atmosphere, less sunlight reaching the earth. Genius! It’s simple and effective. But with such a proposal, all those secondary environmental problems are completely ignored. It’s like the kid who cleans his room by shoving everything into the closet. I do believe that in the next 30-50 years we’re going to solve the climate problem, but the question is whether we’ll do so in an environmentally-conscious way or not.

Paterson, J. et al. Mitigation, Adaptation, and the Threat to Biodiversity. Conservation Biology, In Press. (doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.01042.x)

The win–lose trilogies are ordered mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity (e.g., lose–win–lose means a loss for mitigation, a win for adaptation, and a loss for biodiversity).

The win–lose trilogies are ordered mitigation, adaptation, biodiversity (e.g., lose–win–lose means a loss for mitigation, a win for adaptation, and a loss for biodiversity).

Posted by Tim on September 9th, 2008 • • Comments Off
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