THE REAL Assigning value to conservation targets - was Endangered Genera (

John Shuey Shueyi at AOL.COM
Fri Jan 8 10:41:53 CST 1999

I wasn't even sure I wanted to send this post to the list, but system failure
has forced my hand. I apologize, because I'm still not sure I ever would have
sent this out!  Mostly I was venting and trying to see if I could build some
coherent arguments for my case. Two versions were in the cue when the system
bombed -- so you can trash both of them (and me as well if you so desire - I
deserve it).

There are several interesting philosophical question floating around in the
threads related to this subject, as well as the morphospecies thread, and the
"tobin" tale.  These revolve around the different perspectives, interests,
professional goals and experiences of those on the list.  Given that intro,
here is my perspective so that you will now where I'm coming from.

 I'm conservation practitioner, who trained in ecology, ethology and
systematics.  I work for The Nature Conservancy, a U.S-based conservation
organization with programs throughout the western hemisphere and the South
Pacific - TNC's conservation budget exceeded $500M last year, and is growing.
The budget is split and 60/40 to U.S and international programs respectively
(go to www\ if you want additional info).  I currently guide the
conservation activities in Indiana, a small Midwestern US a state that is
dominated by agricultural landuses.  We spend $3-4M per year on direct
conservation within Indiana and send >$100K/year to conservation organizations
in Latin America.  I am committed to implementing conservation, and doubt that
I would ever leave The Conservancy - if I did, it would be for a similar
position where applied conservation is the normal routine.

 That said, I believe that there are fundamental differences in the
perspectives of those who practice conservation, and those who talk about
practicing conservation.  We are always short of resources and one of our
primary activities it making sure we achieve maximum results for the resources
we expend.  We tend to not take short-cuts, by targeting individual taxa
unless we absolutely have to (conservation practitioners work to conserve
biodiversity, not individual species).  Thus, this text perplexes me as a

 <     Are there any lists (governmental or otherwise) that concentrate on
  <"endangered" high taxa like genera and families.  Given that extinctions
  <are unfortunately a part of modern life, I wonder if anyone tries any
  <kind of taxonomic "triage", so that species of less species-rich genera or
  <families, might be given a bit more attention than very species-rich genera
  <or families.  Of course there are other things to consider, but in
  <general wouldn't limited resources be best spent if we tried to
  <concentrate on overall genetic biodiversity.

It raises and provides an answer to the question - Where does real genetic
biodiversity reside?  Does a taxon that represents the lone species of a
highly derived lineage represent "more" genetic diversity than does a complex
of poorly understood sibling species that pass as a single morphospecies?  How
about highly underived taxa, which retain many ancestral characters and hence
are termed "primitive" -- why would they be more genetically rich than
"normally" evolved entities.
        A second point is the level at which extinction occurs.  Extinction is a
population-level process.  If extinction runs unchecked, it can, does and has
consumed entire species.  The question posed above seems to revolve around
extinction at higher taxonomic categories, especially as it relates to
evolutionarily isolated taxa represented by very few species.  But given that
extinction happens at the population level, does targeting and conserving a
genus really make sense just because it is really different from its nearest
relatives?  Should not that entity actually be imperiled before scarce
conservation dollars are spent to conserve it?  And if it is imperiled, then
our goal becomes the conservation of populations of that entity doesn't it --
not the higher taxonomic category per say.
        Third, this implies that biodiversity conservation proceeds on a species-by-
species approach.  In practice, only the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the
IUCN take this approach.  Most conservation organizations are targeting
ecosystems as  targets.  We assume that you capture all the component species
in the process.  Targeting and conserving single species, while sometimes a
necessity, is very cost prohibitive.  Where possible, organization like the
one I work for try to take a broad approach.  For example, the Conservancy
just worked out a deal that added 2,000,000 acres to Noel Kempf National Park
in Bolivia (includes a diverse mosaic of savanna, wetlands, and mountain
rainforest with extensive riverine systems entirely contained within the
park).  This creates a conserved area of almost 4M acres, that is likely a
viable conservation area for all resident species.  Other, equally important
landscapes are being worked on throughout the hemisphere.  Targeting single
species will never yield such coherently designed conservation areas as these.

 <     A species like the "bumblebee" bat, which I assume is still
 <endangered, being the sole member of a monotypic family (and of even
 <greater evolutionary importance because of its place in chiropteran
 <evolution), as an example.  Is it given any kind of extra protection
 <because it could be argued to be a more importance piece of biodiversity
 <than let's say an endangered species in a speciose genus of insect,
 <mollusc, or angiosperm.  Perhaps this is already being done?  Just
 <wanted to get some feedback on this while it has popped back into my
 <mind. >>

This argument places relative "conservation value" on species.  (This one is
more important than that one because...).  I personally can't assign value to
every species on the planet, so that I can develop a prioritized list of which
to save and which to allow to become extinct.  Further, I remain an optimist,
and feel that with well leveraged action, that we can indeed stabilize the
current biodiversity crisis facing the World.
        Towards that end, current planning efforts for conservation are
designed to
conserve representative viable examples of all community types, using the
appropriate level of geographic redundancy for each community type, such that
the vast majority of individual species captured within a suite of conserved
sites.  Such as system should capture genetic diversity across species ranges,
as well as get all or most of those entities that we've been discussing on the
"morphospecies" thread.  Of course, some species are so rare that they will be
missed by this community approach, and these species do have to be targeted
individually.  But they are targeted only after the more "cost effective"
approach and the vast majority of singularly imperiled species can be captured
using this approach.
        This relatively simplistic issue really doesn't hit home until you personally
have to decide how to spend limited currency on conservation projects.  While
organizations like TNC, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and
others spend hundreds of millions per year (perhaps upwards of $1B US) -- it's
a small fraction of the effort that is required.  Hence, groups spending their
own funds want to maximize bang for the buck.  You don't maximize bangs by
chasing individual species you try and come up with "coarse filters" which
capture intact systems with all species intact.  The you implement that coarse
filter on a global basis such that it is likely to capture almost all species.
The Conservancy is indeed doing this in the areas where we work.

NOW that I've said all of that, there is one higher taxonomic group that I am
very concerned about - Unionid Mussels.  Around 60% of the US species are
either extinct or critically imperiled.  In the Midwestern US, we are spending
an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out where and how to save these
amazing animals. And because they are so rare, we usually approach
conservation of mussels species by species.  It's a pain in the ass, and
amazingly expensive (in Indiana, a small state, we spent almost over $500,000
last year on watershed projects, and we will likely double that amount over
the next three years.  All being driven by about 100 species of mussels.

Again, I apologize for the posting screw-ups, and I am indeed red-faced,

John Shuey
Director of Conservation Science (as well as out of control automation)
Indiana Office of The Nature Conservancy
(new email - Jshuey at

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