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Prioritizing investments to save endangered species

What is the best way to ensure the survival of as many endangered species as possible? How do we best use limited resources to protect species?

A new project initiated by the Wildlife and Landscape Science Directorate of the Science and Technology Branch of Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) set out to answer these questions, working in collaboration with Dr. Tara Martin, University of British Columbia, and collaborators from the Canadian Wildlife Service. Published earlier this month in Conservation Letters, the resultant manuscript is entitled Prioritizing recovery funding to maximize conservation of endangered species.

Priority Threat Management

The paper introduces a method known as priority threat management, or PTM. It offers decision makers a way to determine which management strategies promise the most conservation impact per dollar invested.  For this pilot project, the authors applied the PTM method to ECCC’s Action Plan for Multiple Species at Risk in Southwestern Saskatchewan: South of the Divide.  This plan, led by Dr. Mark Wayland of the Canadian Wildlife Service, addresses the recovery needs of 15 species in a mixed-grass prairie region in southern Saskatchewan; 13 of these species are listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.  The proposed management strategies are broad and range from greater regulation to habitat conservation to habitat restoration. Prioritizing this diverse list of management strategies, while considering the various needs of these 15 species, was a challenging proposition.

Dr. Paul Smith from ECCC’s Wildlife Research Division notes that this plan is one of an increasing number of multi-species Action Plans, designed to accelerate the recovery of At Risk species in priority areas.  “Many of these multi-species Action Plans could face similar challenges with prioritization.  Science-based approaches can help to guide the decision making in these complex scenarios” says Smith who led this pilot test of the PTM approach in Canada.

Reaching Recovery Targets

With the PTM approach, the benefit of each strategyFootnote 1 is multiplied by the feasibility and then divided by the expected costs. Summed across species, this produces a measure of “cost effectiveness”.  Costs, feasibility, and benefits were all estimated by the experts who devised the action plan, along with estimates of uncertainty in these values.  These measures of cost effectiveness were then used to show the probability of reaching recovery targets for each of the 15 species under various scenarios of conservation investment. 

Under the baseline scenario of no intervention, only two of the 15 species analyzed had a 50% or higher chance of meeting recovery objectives. With implementation of just five complementary strategies through an investment of $126M over 20 years, 13 of the 15 species exceeded the 50% probability of meeting recovery objectives.  Importantly, for various scenarios of investment, the results show that selecting conservation actions using the PTM approach was more efficient than selecting actions on the basis of cost only or effectiveness only.  “We can make limited resources for endangered species go much further by prioritizing investment in management strategies that recover the greatest number of species for the least cost” the paper states.

Smith emphasizes the approach does not inherently prioritize which species should be the focus of investment; the calculations focus only on prioritizing conservation actions.  Some of these actions have a greater overall impact because they benefit multiple species, while others benefit only a small number of species, but all species are given equal consideration.  However, the PTM approach did identify some species for which recovery was unlikely regardless of investment, unless actions were taken outside the region.  Thus, the method can also demonstrate when regional-scale management is not enough. 

The PTM method has been used a handful of times elsewhere in the world, but this study is the first application of the approach to endangered species management in Canada.  The paper states that the approach “offers a rigorous and repeatable means of prioritizing conservation strategies and has the potential to improve the efficiency of recovery implementation around the globe….It provides valuable documentation of expected benefits and costs, establishes critical baselines for measuring future conservation success, and guides future research by identifying critical uncertainties”. 

Smith says that PTM is just one example of how science-based approaches can be used to make better conservation decisions. “Conservation issues are complex and it can be difficult to know where to start, but overcoming that uncertainty and moving towards action is essential – things won’t get better on their own”.

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