May 16, 2011
Conservation Triage - "Should Conservationists Allow Some Species to Die Out?"
A recent article highlights the controversial concept of "conservation triage," whereby limited conservation resources are directed toward the species with the "best prospects for long-term survival." While the list of endangered and threatened species is growing, the funding for such programs is increasingly tight, and always finite.
The article highlights the plight of the California condor, the population of which dropped to 22 individuals in 1987. Twenty five years later the condor numbers only 192 living in the wild, while 189 live in captivity. The program to monitor and maintain condor populations costs more than $4 million a year, while the typical minimum viable population size for long-term species survival is about 5,000 individuals. At least one group of conservationists have asserted that "it is time for the global rescue operation to adopt the mind-set of a battlefield medic: Some endangered species are far more likely to recover than others, so we should identify those and save as many as we can." These conservationists argue that "you could save hundreds of butterfly species with the same investment being put into the condor."
Others, on the other hand, argue that "focusing on the cheapest wins 'may increase the short term tally of species, but we would end up saving only the most convenient ones.'" These conservationists point to the white rhino, the population of which dropped to 20 individuals at one point, but that stands at over 17,000 today.
This controversy demonstrates yet another tough choice faced by those concerned about the environment. It also highlights how approaches to habitat conservation can provide economic efficiency gains that can save both the most species and provide better long-term survival opportunities for those, like the condor, that are in limited numbers in the wild.
Land development activities are appropriating increasing and copious amounts of habitat/natural capital every day. It would seem a shift in focus from the costly propping up of single species in quickly developing areas to the prevention of habitat destruction is in order. The internalization of these environmental harms into our economic development costs may seem like triage to development interests and consumers, as they forgo - in the short term - a slight decrease in profit (or developers pass that cost down to the consumer). But in the long run it will be a far less costly triage than that proposed by some conservationists.
- Blake Hudson
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