If We Can’t Save All Species, Which Ones Should We Save?

Which species will adapt to climate change—and which ones won’t.
Feb. 21 2013 12:08 PM

Conservation Triage

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

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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?

Michelle Nijhuis is a contributing writer for Smithsonian, a contributing editor of High Country News, and a 2011 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.