With more species at risk than resources to save them, conservationists face hard choices
Environmental degradation means scientists need to focus on triage
Originally published on September 7, 2018.
In the summer of 2018, a female orca made headlines around the world after she spent 17 days carrying her dead calf, highlighting the plight of southern resident killer whales.
Researchers say the orcas are starving, relying on a dwindling stock of Chinook salmon for food.
To tackle the declining numbers, the Canadian government, scientists and conservation groups have gone to enormous lengths: setting up hatcheries to reproduce salmon and limiting vessel noise and traffic around the endangered species.
But with a vast array of species facing similar threats, and limited resources for conservation, those same groups are increasingly facing a painful series of questions.
Is one species more valuable than another? How much are we willing to pay to preserve biodiversity? And at what point should we just give up?
"Across the globe, there's a sort of a depressingly recurrent story of declines in biodiversity, largely due to habitat degradation and, in some cases, over-exploitation," said Eric Taylor, a professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia.
Taylor says we need to look at how we define "saving" a species in the first place.
"Some people say to save a species, at least we've got a breeding pair in a zoo somewhere. That's not my view," he said.
"To save a species means to restore that species to its original range … or at least to a level where the animal can persist without undue human intervention like captive breeding or penning them."
We have more species at risk than resources to save them.- Conservation decision scientist Tara Martin
The asteroid-like impact of humans on earth
A recent study suggested that humans have killed more than 80 per cent of the world's wild mammals.
Studies also suggest human activity is destroying life on a scale the Earth has previously only experienced with a global supervolcano or an asteroid impact.
We're only starting to experience the cost of these losses, says conservation decision scientist Tara Martin.
"It's biodiversity that sustains us, that produces clean air, clean soil, allows our crops to be pollinated. Even if we don't see ourselves connected to biodiversity, we are all fundamentally part of this global ecosystem," she said.
There's a core problem: we have limited resources for conservation.
So how do you pick between focusing on caribou, or fish, or bears, or songbirds?
These are difficult decisions, and we may not be making the right choices, according to Martin.
"We have more species at risk than resources to save them," said Martin.
"In many cases we're spending our scarce resources on a handful of species that have the lowest likelihood of recovery at the highest cost," she continued.
In Canada, Martin said, the majority of the budget is going to a "handful" of high-profile species, when there are 521 species that are risk of extinction and probably 10 times that number should be listed.
On top of that, we don't have any idea how much it'd cost to save this many species, said Martin.
Case study: the Fraser River system
Take the Fraser River system in B.C., which Martin points to as an area "in particular need of triage."
There are 101 species at risk of extinction within the Fraser River estuary, from southern resident killer whales to several species of salmon to migratory birds.
It's also home to millions of people and valuable industries.
"What we have here is an incredibly contentious landscape where there's competing values," she said.
Martin said her group has estimated the cost of saving those 101 species in the system and found that if a concept she works on called "priority threat management" was implemented, there's a good chance of ensuring their continued existence.
The price tag for the work would be nearly half a billion dollars — but Martin says the economic benefit would quickly trump the investment.
"The income generated from having southern resident killer whales and having a whale-watching industry in this region is worth around $70 million a year," she said.
Martin also pointed out that conservation is a job-creator and in turn improves nearby agriculture and fisheries.
A dire outlook
But without conservation strategies, over half of the 101 species in the Fraser River Estuary will not exist in 25 years, said Martin.
"We have the opportunity to save these species. We're at this tipping point, and we really need to act quickly in order to ensure that these species are going to be around for future generations," she said.
Let's come back to the southern resident killer whales.
To give them a fighting chance, conservationists can reduce the noise they're exposed to and increase the amount of food available.
The key, says Martin, is not to leave it too late.
"An example of that in British Columbia are southern mountain caribou. We already lost one herd. We have two herds that are functionally extinct," said Martin.
"Now we're in a situation where we're trying drastic measures," she said. "And it's uncertain if we'll succeed or not."
Written by Ruby Buiza. Produced by Sonya Buyting and Jim Lebans.