Monday, July 9, 2012

Conserving endangered species means weaving together science, policy, education, and public participation

The following article is a guest post by Kyle Barrett. Kyle is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Georgia. His research addresses how large-scale environmental stressors such as urbanization and climate change influence the abundance and distribution of vertebrates. His current projects range from habitat conservation planning in the northeastern US to an assessment of sea level rise effects on marsh birds along the Atlantic coast of the southeastern US. Kyle received a B.S. from Middle Tennessee State University, an M.S. from Missouri State University, and a PhD from Auburn University. When not working Kyle enjoys good books, running, hiking with his family, and drinking beer.

  There are few among us who do not delight in experiencing wild things – a beautiful spring flower blooming on the forest floor, a chorus of frogs mid-summer, or even a foraging squirrel observed from the comfort of the dining room table. There are even fewer who would not at least take pleasure in watching formerly wild things play, eat, and roam in the zoo or in an aquarium. In short, our species seems to be pretty partial to nature. It is this partiality that leads us to want to leave some space for wild things to remain in the wild. But sometimes, of course, the way we use our natural lands and resources is incompatible with the needs of wild things. That’s where the Endangered Species Act (ESA) comes in. In the United States, the ESA is our sole means of legally mandating conservation efforts. Although many aspects of the ESA are controversial, one survey of public opinion revealed that over 80% of the general public would like to see the ESA remain as written or even strengthened.

  I had cause to reflect on the ESA, and conservation of species in general, when I recently made a visit to several mountain bogs in northern Georgia to see Bog Turtles (Clemmys muhlenbergii). This is North America’s smallest turtle, and it’s federally endangered (that is, protected under the ESA) in the northern portion of its range (it is listed as endangered by the state of Georgia, which affords it additional protections within the state). This secretive species inhabits mountain bogs in the south (but can be found in other wetland habitats at lower elevations further north). Bog Turtles are rare mainly because of habitat loss (due to draining of wetlands for land development, habitat inundation from water impoundment, or similar issues) and because they are often collected for pets.

  Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a very 

talented student at the University of Georgia who is extremely passionate about these little turtles. Theresa Stratmann has spent years keeping track of these animals at bogs throughout the Georgia mountains. She, and several others in the state, work tirelessly during the summer to collect data that will help us learn more about the species. Research is an essential component of species conservation, as we cannot conserve what we do not understand. And while research is extremely important to keeping wild things in the wild, it is certainly not the only means to this end. I envision conservation as a patchwork of contributions - research, public participation, education, and policy being the primary contributors to the integrity of the fabric.

Bog Turtle Habitat

  As I drove through the winding mountain roads this week, we stopped at a few bog sites that were owned by either the US Forest Service or the state of Georgia; however, we stopped at many more sites that were privately owned. These lands were owned by individuals who were willing to maintain bog turtle habitat on their land, and even more than that, they were willing to allow Theresa and others to work with the animals on that land. Such
public participation in conservation efforts, especially related to federal threatened and endangered species, is vital. It’s been estimated that up to 80% of federally protected species occur, at least in part of their range, on private lands (Schwartz 2008). Without the participation of these landowners, recovery efforts would be greatly hampered. 

  There is a sentiment among some that having a federally listed species on their land might result in property use restrictions that could
inhibit economically-beneficial development. But, these concerns aren’t necessarily true; in fact, the ESA now allows for the creation of Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs). These plans maximize benefit to provide private landowners and species alike by providing the landowner a guarantee that they can continue to use their land in certain ways, ways that are compatible with the needs of the rare species. As the National Audubon Society reports, these plans vary greatly in both the amount of land and the amount of time they cover. At one extreme an HCP permitted the construction of a residence on one-half an acre in Texas where the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler resided, while another HCP in Washington State address 170,000 acres and hundreds of species for 100 years. An assessment of such HCPs in Georgia recently indicated they do not have any significant negative influence on land values. The landowners that allowed us onto their land this week were giving up very little to promote the long-term persistence of a special species.

Representative Bog Flora

  Why do some landowners agree to give up their ability to do whatever they want to their property and agree to participate in the conservation of rare plants and wildlife? There is little doubt that the education and experiences of these cooperative landowners influences their willingness to contribute to conservation efforts. Positive interactions with wildlife and an understanding of wildlife-habitat relationships can promote an individual’s willingness to contribute to the persistence of wild things through donations of money, time, or simply permitting the wild things and the people that study them to share their land.

  The goodwill and hard work of landowners, conservationists, and researchers are, in some cases, insufficient to save species on the brink of extinction. In these situations policy can provided additional resources to extremely rare species requiring urgent intervention. Such intervention might take the form of habitat management, human-assisted movements of species (away from development or toward breeding opportunities), or mitigation of threats to the species. Strong legislation, such as the ESA, can provide a platform for all of these types of actions.

  For legislation such as the ESA to be enacted, the citizenry must be educated and they must be supportive. The needed education is informed by research and the research is facilitated by public engagement. Conservation is an interwoven fabric of professions, experiences, and personalities. Conservation is informed by science, but it is propelled further by individual passions for species such as the bog turtle. All of us – landowners, scientists, policy makers, voters, teachers, and lovers of nature can readily contribute to the patchwork. The persistence of bog turtles, and the many other wild things that we live alongside, depends upon us making those contributions. 


Want to Learn More? Check Out These Scientific Articles:

B. Czech, & P. R. Krausman (1999). Research Notes Public Opinion on Endangered Species Conservation and Policy Society & Natural Resources: An International Journal, 12 (5), 469-479 DOI: 10.1080/089419299279542

C. Langpap, & J. Kerkvliet (2012). Endangered species conservation on private land: Assessing the effectiveness of habitat conservation plans Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, 64, 1-15 DOI: 10.1016/j.jeem.2012.02.002

M. Schwartz (2008). The performance of the endangered species act Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 39, 279-299 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.39.110707.173538

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