A Lack of Foresight: One of Conversation Biology’s Most Detrimental Shortcomings

Protecting endangered species is a tough job, and Gary Langham, the Chief Scientist of the National Audubon Society, believes that future climate change will it even tougher. In Science Friday’s Can Conservation Efforts Save the Birds? podcast, Langham said that “climate change is going to come in and making everything more complicated…[climate change] threatens to come in and cut across all species and all threats to make what was already a hard job even harder.” It has become increasingly apparent that climate change, primarily caused by human activity, profoundly affects the environment. For some species, their current environments will become uninhabitable due to climate change, and this will inevitably put certain species at risk for extinction.

If we know that species will be threatened by human induced climate change in the future, are conservation biologists preparing now? Langham wanted to answer this question, so his team at the National Audubon Society in Washington D.C. along with researchers from the National Audubon Society in San Francisco decided to use climate change to predict how populations of 588 North American bird species will change in the near future. The researchers also compared their predictions to current conservation efforts. The results of their study were shocking, and made on thing certain: conservation biologists are not preparing for what lies ahead.

Langham found that, given the most dramatic level of possible climate change, 314 of the species studied are predicted to lose over half of their geographic range, and 126 of these species will lose habitat without gaining any. To elucidate how each species will be affected by climate change, the researchers categorized the species by climate threat level. Of the 588 species, the researchers classified 126 species as climate endangered, 188 species as climate threatened, and only 274 as climate stable.

The researchers also claimed that these startling numbers are not reflected in current conservation efforts. According to the researchers, “relatively few bird species in our climate endangered or climate threatened categories are of current conservation priority.” For example, the Baird’s Sparrow (pictured below) is expected to lose more than 95% of its geographic range in the near future. However, the IUCN Red List, which monitors threatened species, considers it to be of “Least Concern”. According to the IUCN Red List’s website the “Least Concern” category “is used to highlight species that have a relatively low extinction risk.” The loss of 95% of its habitat poses an undeniable risk to any species’ continued survival. This lack of foresight is unnerving and suggests that legislators and biologists merely focus on bird species that are currently in danger rather than species that will become endangered. In order to protect species to the best of their ability, conservation biologists must account for both present and future threats to survival.

According to this study, the Baird's Sparrow, a species endemic to North America, is expected to lose 95% of its geographic range. However, the Baird's Sparrow is considered to be of "Least Concern" by the IUCN Red List, which tracks the conservation status of species.  "Baird's Sparrow" by Tom Benson is licensed under CC 2.0

According to this study, the Baird’s Sparrow, a species endemic to North America, is expected to lose 95% of its geographic range. However, the Baird’s Sparrow is considered to be of “Least Concern” by the IUCN Red List, which tracks the conservation status of species.
Baird’s Sparrow” by Tom Benson is licensed under CC 2.0

Additionally, the researchers found that location, time of year and emission levels heavily influence where birds reside. With this information, we can better orchestrate conservation efforts. Predicting these patterns can help conservation biologists and legislators wisely invest time, money and other limited resources. For example, hunting in a given area could be regulated based on time of year and species volume.

Skeptics may doubt these predictions and question the models used. However, North American bird population distributions through space and time are some of the best recorded of all species. The statistical models and predictions from the study were based on information from the North American Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) and Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC). According to the researchers, the BBS and CBC are “two of the most comprehensive continental datasets of vertebrates in the world.” Given this, we can trust the legitimacy of these predictions.

The results of this study hold heavy implications for the field of conservation biology. We aren’t thinking ahead. Right now, humans are making messes and conservation biologists are scrambling to clean them up. We need to invest more energy in predicting and preparing rather than responding. If conservation biologists can see the path down which nature is walking, they can know where and when to step in.


Ammodramus bairdii (Baird’s Sparrow). (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from     http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/22721141/0

IUCN Red List Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2015, from http://www.iucnredlist.org/info/faq

Langham, G. M., Schuetz, J. G., Distler, T., Soykan, C. U., & Wilsey, C. (2015).       Conservation Status of North American Birds in the Face of Future Climate Change. Plos ONE, 10(9), 1-16. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0135350

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This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2015. Bookmark the permalink.

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