Animal Forecast

Conservation Triage

Say you have an ark. Which species do you save?

A Bald Eagle is seen at Cabarceno nature reserve.
Politically controversial species attract more funding, as do those with symbolic value, like bald eagles

Photo by Reuters/Victor Fraile

Let’s say you’re in charge of picking the survivors. You’ve got a boat—oh, let’s just make it an ark, shall we?—and you can load it with any kind of animals you like. The species you coax on board will probably make it through climate change. The ones you leave on shore probably won’t. While you can choose your passengers, there are limits: Put too many critters in the ark and the whole thing, you included, will start to sink.

Which species will you save? Will you pick the rarest, the largest, or the smallest? The strongest or the weakest? The most beautiful … or just the tastiest?

The thing is, most of us are already making these choices, and making them all the time. Not that we think much about it. But every time we decide what to buy, where to build, or who to put in charge of spending our tax dollars, we’re indirectly deciding which species deserve our consideration and which species can do without it.

It’s easy to ignore this reality and pretend that we can and will protect everything. The U.S. Endangered Species Act, which turns 40 this year and is still considered by many to be the most powerful environmental law in the world, made essentially all species eligible for federal protection. But federal, state, and private dollars are finite, and in recent years, it’s become all too obvious that the demands of conservation are functionally infinite.

You’ve heard the news: Species of all sizes and descriptions are contending with habitat destruction, pollution, and the accelerating and far-reaching pressures of climate change. Some species will adapt. Those that aren’t picky about their habitats or diets, such as crows and coyotes, stand the best chance. But species that require particular habitats, such as polar bears, or a single type of prey or pollinator aren’t likely to make it, at least not without huge investments of time and money.

So in recent years, some conservationists and scientists have been pushing for a more explicit, systematic approach to conservation decisions—a kind of triage system in which a rational set of criteria is used to allocate limited resources. Environmentalists have long been wary of any sort of triage approach to species conservation, and understandably so. Explicit triage is, in a way, an admission of failure, an acknowledgement that we’ve fallen short of the Endangered Species Act’s goal of protecting all species without prejudice. And any such acknowledgement could well be exploited by traditional foes of conservation.

But some environmentalists now say the status quo is an even riskier path. “The way we’re doing it right now in the United States is the worst of all possible choices,” says Tim Male, a vice president at Defenders of Wildlife. “It essentially reflects completely ad hoc prioritization.” Politically controversial species attract more funding, as do those with symbolic value (think bald eagles) or furry, expressive faces (think lemurs and baby seals). “We live in a world of unconscious triage,” says Male.

So how to make these life-and-death decisions? Scientists have proposed several approaches. One is to prioritize species that play some sort of essential role in their ecosystem—top predators such as wolves, for instance. Another is to focus on protecting extremely rare and unusual species, with the hope of preserving a diverse genetic pool and with it the ability of species to evolve and adapt to new conditions. The EDGE of Existence program, run by the Zoological Society of London, takes the latter approach. It has a fascinating collection of weird and wonderful species in its portfolio, ranging from the Chinese giant salamander to the two-humped Bactrian camel.

Other organizations have combined approaches: The Wildlife Conservation Society, in a recent analysis of its priorities, gave higher rankings to threatened species with large body sizes and home ranges, reasoning that the conservation of such species would serve as an “umbrella” for many others. It also prioritized genetic distinctiveness and allowed experts to consider subjective qualities such as charisma—because cuteness, like it or not, helps bring in funding for further species protection.

One of the most sophisticated strategies in use today is being developed by Hugh Possingham and his colleagues at the University of Queensland in Australia. Through Possingham’s “resource-allocation” process, wildlife managers weigh the costs, benefits, and likelihood of success of conservation for each threatened species. The New Zealand Department of Conservation used the process to analyze its conservation work on more than 700 declining native species. It discovered that by choosing strategically, it could preserve nearly half again as many species as it was currently protecting with the same amount of funding.

Sounds great, right? But spare a thought for the species at the bottom of the list. New Zealand assigned a relatively low priority to the rockhopper penguin, which has declined precipitously in recent years due to climate-change-driven shifts in its food supply. While the rockhopper penguin could certainly benefit from national protection efforts, New Zealand managers decided that any effective measures would be so time-consuming and expensive that they would drain resources from other, more promising conservation projects. It’s not exactly a death sentence for the penguin: There are rockhoppers outside New Zealand, and officials hope all low-priority species will receive additional public funds, or else support from private groups or international efforts. But the rockhopper’s low rating is hardly a vote of confidence.

One reason these decisions are so difficult is that there’s no way to know when a seemingly lost cause is really lost. After all, the population of California condors had dwindled to just 22 before they were captured, bred in captivity, and successfully returned to the wild. The rockhopper penguin might well be doomed. Then again, it might be another California condor, just waiting for the right kind of rescue.

“We can prevent extinction; we’ve demonstrated that,” says John Nagle, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written extensively about environmental issues. But “knowing that an extinction was something we could have stopped and chose not to—I think that’s where people kind of gulp and don’t want to go down that road.”

That’s the point of triage systems, though. They force professionals—and, indirectly, voters and taxpayers—to make difficult, emotional decisions, but give them some reassurance that those decisions are for the greater good. It may be easier to decide by default, but in the end, the patients lose. So perhaps it’s time to make your pick. Who gets to board your ark?