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?

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.

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