Classics: Ecological Triage

27 03 2009

It is a truism that when times are tough, only the strongest pull through. This isn’t a happy concept, but in our age of burgeoning biodiversity loss (and economic belt-tightening), we have to make some difficult decisions.In this regard, I suggest Brian Walker’s1992 paper Biodiveristy and ecological redundancy makes the Classics list.

Ecological triage is, of course, taken from the medical term triage used in emergency or wartime situations. Ecological triage refers to the the conservation prioritisation of species that provide unique or necessary functions to ecosystems, and the abandonment of those that do not have unique ecosystem roles or that face almost certain extinction given they fall well below their minimum viable population size (Walker 1992). Financial resources such as investment in recovery programmes, purchase of remaining habitats for preservation, habitat restoration, etc. are allocated accordingly; the species that contribute the most to ecosystem function and have the highest probability of persisting are earmarked for conservation and others are left to their own devices (Hobbs & Kristjanson 2003).

This emotionally empty and accounting-type conservation can be controversial because public favourites like pandas, kakapo and some dolphin species just don’t make the list in many circumstances. As I’ve stated before, it makes no long-term conservation or economic sense to waste money on the doomed and ecologically redundant. Many in the conservation business apply ecological triage without being fully aware of it. Finite pools of money (generally the paltry left-overs from some green-guilty corporation or under-funded government initiative) for conservation mean that we have to set priorities – this is an entire discipline in its own right in conservation biology. Reserve design is just one example of this sacrifice-the-doomed-for-the good-of-the-ecosystem approach.

Walker (1992) advocated that we should endeavour to maintain ecosystem function first, and recommended that we abandon programmes to restore functionally ‘redundant’ species (i.e., some species are more ecologically important than others, e.g., pollinators, prey). But how do you make the choice? The wrong selection might mean an extinction cascade (Noss 1990; Walker 1992) whereby tightly linked species (e.g., parasites-hosts, pollinators-plants, predators-prey) will necessarily go extinct if one partner in the mutualism disappears (see Koh et al. 2004 on co-extinctions). Ecological redundancy is a terribly difficult thing to determine, especially given that we still understand relatively little about how complex ecological systems really work (Marris 2007).

The more common (and easier, if not theoretically weaker) approach is to prioritise areas and not species (e.g., biodiversity hotspots), but even the criteria used for area prioritisation can be somewhat arbitrary and may not necessarily guarantee the most important functional groups are maintained (Orme et al. 2005; Brooks et al. 2006). There are many different ways of establishing ‘priority’, and it depends partially on your predilections.

More recent mathematical approaches such as cost-benefit analyses (Possingham et al. 2002; Murdoch et al. 2007) advocate conservation like a CEO would run a profitable business. In this case the ‘currency’ is biodiversity, and so a fixed financial investment must maximise long-term biodiversity gains (Possingham et al. 2002). This essentially estimates the potential biodiversity saved per dollar invested, and allocates funds accordingly (Wilson et al. 2007). Where the costs outweigh the benefits, conservationists move on to more beneficial goals. Perhaps the biggest drawback with this approach is that it’s particularly data-hungry. When ecosystems are poorly measured, then the investment curve is unlikely to be very realistic.

CJA Bradshaw

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(Many thanks to Lochran Traill and Barry Brook for co-developing these ideas with me)