Penny-Wise Preservation

Should conservationists give up on saving some species nearing extinction today for the chance to save even more species down the road? That is the question tackled by a new study that examines how best to allocate severely limited resources to address the threat of extinction.

“The threats to biodiversity are increasing and conservation efforts for threatened species are not sufficient,” four researchers write in Ecology Letters. “Conservation practitioners and the public alike are often polarized as to what constitutes the wise use of a limited budget.”

Some suggest that focusing resources on today’s most endangered species will save the greatest number of species in the long term. Others advocate a strategy known as “triaging,” or prioritizing resources with cost efficiency in mind. That means sometimes even allowing some species to go extinct. (Triaging originated as a medical concept in which emergency care givers abandon hopeless cases, treat more serious cases first, and put less serious cases on hold.)

To determine the best bang for the conservation buck, the research team created a cost-benefit model that accounted for the probability of extinction and the costs of saving 32 species, and then they crunched the numbers to maximize the number of species saved.

They found that focusing resources only on the most-endangered species “will not typically maximise the number of species saved, as this does not take into account the risk of less-endangered species going extinct in the future.” In contrast, over the long term, conservationists can “recover as many species as possible by allocating resources based on the lowest expected cost of recovery.” This will result in a short-term tradeoff for long-term gains, the team notes. “In the short-term, there would be relatively fewer species extant when compared with spending on more endangered species, whereas at longer time periods, there would be relatively more species extant.”

The model highlights the need to shift resources away from saving a relatively small number of highly threatened species today, they argue. “As in medicine,” they conclude, “more emphasis should be placed on long-term preventive conservation rather than short-term fire-fighting.” Matthew Dieter | July 19, 2011

Source: Howard B. Wilson, et al. When should we save the most endangered species? Ecology Letters (2011). DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01652.x

Image © John Brueske |



  • Kelly Lance July 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Not all species are equal. What if allowing one species to go extinct causes a trophic cascade which would disrupt an entire eco- system and possibly the destruction of further species?
    Further more, this lack of funding is temporary. We shouldn’t make policy for tomorrow based on the decline in the economy today.


  • Notes from a rare planet: The carbon footprint of a cheeseburger | Adventures in Conservation July 19, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    […] A conservationist’s debate: Should we give up on saving some species nearing extinction today for the chance to save even more species down the road? (Conservation Magazine) […]


  • Paul J. Baicich July 20, 2011 at 2:50 am

    This is a false choice, a trap. There is not a lack of funding; there is a lack of political will. Besides, engaging in a triage mentality will only get us to squabble over supposedly “limited” resources.

    As for the “will,” today in the US, just witness the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF). Some $900 million is authorized annually, while Congress authorizes only crumbs – with the House Appropriations Committee recommending less than $62 million.


  • Petter Hedberg July 20, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Pretending that the real world is or will be utopia is not helping the ecosystems one bit. No, the lack of funding is not a current phenomenon.
    There was no money in mowing meadows 20 years ago and apart from the EU agro env scheme there is none now either. I think conservationists have to look at other arenas for funding, and not just hope for the political crumps. Click and Add sites like is an emcouraging and working example.


  • tom warner July 21, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    After having lived on the earth for a very long time, I have with great reluctance, come to the conclusion that we are shortly going to be living here minus most other living things. The only other non-human beings will be those who are able to adapt to co-existing with Homo Sapiens. The only hope for the survival of the natural world is the elimination of our species; something many of us would welcome. I doubt that we can ever change our ways.


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