One of the balancing acts faced by conservation agencies is how to conserve and protect as many species as possible from extinction with limited funding and finite resources. In the U.S., conservation agencies are supported and guided by the Endangered Species Act, the seminal wildlife conservation law signed by President Nixon in 1973 that is currently being reviewed by Congress.
Over time, the number of threatened and endangered species added to the ESA has grown faster than the funding for their recovery. As a result, conservation agencies have struggled in making decisions about how to apply the available resources to the greatest effect.
The result of this inadequate funding has been that while the ESA has brought back many species from the brink of extinction, many of those species remain on “life support,” never fully recovering to independence once again. This adds fuel to the debate over the effectiveness of the ESA.
“The ESA requires that responsible agencies restore listed species to a point where they are secure, self-sustaining components of their ecosystem,” explained Leah Gerber, an Arizona State University professor in the School of Life Sciences and the founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes. “This is arguably an impossible goal given the significant human impact on species and their habitat, and a budget that is a fraction — roughly 20 percent — of what is needed to recover listed species.”
Where to spend those precious funds is a complex issue.
So Gerber, as part of a team of researchers, developed a tool that can be used to help guide conservation scientists to decisions on how to best use limited funds to conserve the greatest number of species. The tool was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services (USFWS) in a two-year project supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. The tool, called the Recovery Explorer, can be used to evaluate potential consequences of alternative resource allocation strategies. This work was motivated, in part, by past critiques of USFWS recovery allocation processes.
The researchers write about the Recovery Explorer in “Endangered species recovery: A resource allocation problem” in the Oct. 19 issue of Science. Gerber said that Recovery Explorer can be used on a laptop or in a decision-theater type environment.
For example, it can be used to examine how different values-based inputs (e.g., desires for taxonomic representation or regional parity in funding) influence optimal allocation and recovery outcomes; or the effect of uncertainty in technical inputs (e.g., extinction risk, cost) on funding allocation and outcomes.
“The tool is meant to be exploratory, not prescriptive, allowing decision makers to examine alternative approaches to resource allocation by making the important components of the decision process transparent,” explained Gerber, who also is an ASU senior sustainability scientist.