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Biologists: Survival of American Animals, Plants Needs a National Approach

U.S. scientists have issued a warning that current conservation efforts are insufficient to prevent widespread extinctions of plants and animals.

September 1, 2016

Proposal for a strategic National Habitat Conservation System will make conservation more connected and coordinated, lessening the odds for widespread extinction

Honolulu, HI - As biologists from around the globe convene in Hawaii for the quadrennial World Conservation Congress, a distinguished group of scientists from across America has issued a warning that current conservation efforts in the United States, while perhaps successful in the short term, are insufficient to prevent widespread extinctions of the nation’s plants and animals.

The 14 scientists, who include high-level representatives from American universities and nonprofits, as well as the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, argue that safeguarding America’s natural heritage will require a far more strategic, landscape-scale approach, and in this month’s issue of the prestigious journal BioScience, they propose the creation of a National Habitat Conservation System.

“We should be proud of the significant conservation accomplishments we’ve made in the United States over the past century, but the amount of biodiversity we’re losing and the ways that we’re short-circuiting complex ecological processes is taking its toll,” said Jodi Hilty, one of the paper’s authors and the president and chief scientist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, which is working to connect and protect U.S. and Canadian habitat across 2,000 miles from Yellowstone to the Yukon.

Speaking from Hawaii, where she is scheduled as a panelist at the World Conservation Congress, which gets underway today, Hilty said: “America needs a strategic vision that can connect all the great work being done at the local, state, regional and national level, so that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.”

The biologists who authored the report (see below) acknowledge that there has been an enormous amount of conservation work in the United States over the past century, including the establishment of more than 300 million acres of conservation areas nationwide. These areas include a patchwork of everything from private land trusts and conservation easements to state wildlife areas, national recreation areas and national parks.

Yet, the biologists contend that as impressive as it may seem, the collection of land, freshwater and marine sanctuaries in the United States is inadequate for the long-term survival of many species because the parts have been assembled piecemeal, are too diffuse with uncoordinated management, and are often insufficient in size.

“One of the consequences of not having a unified plan to guide all our work is that we have a lot of agencies and individuals all setting their own priorities in the absence of any larger context,” said Hilty. “Nobody is looking at the big picture, and that’s exactly what we need to protect America’s biological heritage. All of our successes are in jeopardy without a broader strategy that will tie them together in a comprehensive way.”

The BioScience paper, “Completing the System: Opportunities and Challenges for a National Habitat Conservation System,” suggests creating a comprehensive network of biologists – comprising representatives of state and federal agencies, tribal and territorial groups, researchers, nonprofit organizations and private landowners – who can be tasked with figuring out how to better share resources and understand the gaps within U.S. conservation efforts. It proposes four key actions for this group toward creating a national habitat conservation system:

1. Develop a common vision and establish measureable goals.
2. Complete an assessment of the current state of conservation in the U.S.
3. Set standards and use an adaptive management framework to monitor progress.
4. Implement strategies to complete the national habitat conservation system.

“Unless we can find a way to start putting the pieces together in a more coordinated way, the landscape disturbances that are causing species’ declines, from climate change to sprawl, are going to gain the upper hand,” said Craig Groves, the executive director of the Bozeman, Montana-based Science for Nature and People Partnership and also an author of the BioScience article. “We’re losing biodiversity even though we’re making some gains at conservation because we’re not thinking holistically.”


For further comment, contact:

  • Jodi Hilty, President and Chief Scientist, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative
    406-599-6623 | jodi@y2y.net
  • Craig Groves, Executive Director, Science for Nature and People Partnership
    406-451-9546 | craig_groves@tnc.org

Authors of the BioScience article:

• Jocelyn Aycrigg, professor, University of Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences
• Craig Groves, executive director, Science for Nature and People Partnership, Bozeman, Montana
• Paul Beier, professor, Northern Arizona University School of Forestry
• D. A. Boyce Jr., national wildlife ecologist, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, D.C.
• Dennis Figg, Meadow Creek Conservation, Jefferson City, Missouri
• Healy Hamilton, chief scientist and vice president, NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia
• Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Bozeman, Montana
• Gary Machlis, science advisor to the director, National Park Service, and professor, Clemson University
• Kit Muller, coordinator for National Landscape Initiatives, Bureau of Land Management, Washington, D.C.
• K. V. Rosenberg, scientist, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York
• Raymond Sauvajot, associate director for natural resource stewardship and science, National Park Service, Washington, D.C
• J. Michael Scott, professor emeritus, University of Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife Science
• Mark Shaffer, retired, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Reston, Virginia
• Rand Wentworth, president emeritus, Land Trust Alliance, Washington, D.C.