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New tool guides conservation progress on limited funding

In the United States, species that need protection are supported under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). However, the list of threatened and endangered species is growing faster than the availability of funding for conservation efforts. This leaves agencies with the dilemma of where to focus strategies for the best results.

While the ESA has managed to save species from the brink of extinction, many of these groups cannot be fully rehabilitated to the point of independence due to a lack of funding. As a result, important progress by the ESA may appear ineffective.

Professor Leah Gerber of Arizona State University is the founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes.

“The ESA requires that responsible agencies restore listed species to a point where they are secure, self-sustaining components of their ecosystem,” explained Gerber. “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.”

Gerber is is also part of a team of researchers who developed a tool to guide conservation scientists on how to utilize limited funds to conserve the greatest number of species. The resource was developed in collaboration with scientists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in a project supported by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center.

The Recovery Explorer was designed to help conservationists evaluate the potential outcomes of resource allocation strategies.

“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.

“In my view, one of the most promising possibilities of the tool is that it can be used to estimate what outcomes will be gained for a given investment. For example, if a private donor is willing to give $3 million toward biodiversity conservation, we can provide a list of possible actions that align with the specified objectives.”

Gerber teamed up with Michael Runge, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, to lead a global team of conservation scientists in developing the Recovery Explorer.

“We designed the recovery explorer tool to allow managers to compare the consequences of different allocation approaches,” said Runge. “We also include options for managers to include objectives related to taxonomic, regional inclusion or other societal values.”

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have reported success using frameworks that are similar to the methods used by Recovery Explorer, which are referred to as optimal resource allocations. According to Gerber, fully-funded recovery plans tend to be more successful than partially-funded recovery plans.

“Resource allocation is not about saving some species and letting others go extinct,” said the researchers. “It is about finding a way to better order the work so that as many species as possible are recovered given the limited resources available at any moment in time.”

The study is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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