2030 C: Change

Overview. Conservation practice has come to grips with the reality of changing ecosystems and often manages to targets other than historic baselines. A more flexible and nuanced definition of nature values novel and hybrid ecosystems as part of the mix of the conserved landscape.  Methods embrace uncertainty, stressing observation, trials, and caution in interventions.

Context/Drivers.  High levels of uncertainty characterize the world.  Economic, political and climate surprises abound. Migrations are widespread as people flee war, drought, etc. The world order seems more fragile.  Youth are drawn to urban centers. Continued rapid change in technology allows for major increases in modeling and visualization power.

Wildlife has responded to climate variability and other stressors by shifting ranges.  In many places, diversity is going up, at least for now. Individual species respond in their own ways, leading to new assemblages and ecosystem structures. The real patterns of change are much more complex than just northward and upslope movement.  Winds, precipitation and land use all play a part. More animals are finding ways to coexist with human habitation, even in urban and sub-urban areas.

Strategies.  With the future uncertain, a diverse portfolio of conservation investments and strategies are tried.  Sustainable conservation assumes accelerating change in climate and composition of ecosystems; its goal remains to have resilient and complex ecosystems.  Historic ecosystems are still protected where possible, which is less often. Adaptive management, which is widely used, regularly revisits assumptions, goals and strategies, adjusting as conditions change and outcomes are measured. Scenario planning is used to create contingent strategies and tracking frameworks. Without clear, historic targets, projects explicitly choose their goals by engaging stakeholders in discussions about the kind of environment they want and what they value. Practitioners find this approach more flexible and practical.

Focus on protecting individual species had become increasingly counterproductive.  The underlying threat is loss of ecosystem health and complexity.  Emphasis shifts to protecting places with the geophysical characteristics that support resilient ecosystem functions and are likely to have high biodiversity in the future. Some projects focus on protecting processes that keep ecosystems healthy. We now manage in order to facilitate the evolutionary process, to encourage change in species and increase their adaptive capacity.  Since we really don’t know what’s going to happen, conservation becomes about diminishing problematic processes and nurturing positive processes for ecosystem health and resilience.

Land preservation is declining as a strategy.  The focus is on allowing for easier migration of species across as much land as possible, which can’t be done only in preserved parcels. Making agricultural lands less of a biodiversity disaster, while also being better carbon sinks, is a priority. Landscape architects and nurseries help average homeowners think about biodiversity in their landscaping choices. Creating more open green space in urban and near-urban settings allows people of all economic means and cultural backgrounds to have some contact with nature and be more aware of how their actions affect nature.  Figuring out how humans and rich ecosystems can coexist is the task.

We begin to appreciate the creativity in all this change, even in the spread of invasive species, since new isolated breeding populations will give rise to new species and hybrids. 

Major Players. Conservation organizations have had to adapt to all this change.  They often change focus or find new partners to advance their work, the very conception of which is changing.  They try out new strategies and attempt diverse innovations, not all of which work.  Museums have had to shed a static image for a more future looking and dynamic one to stay relevant. All try to be more flexible and nimble. NGOs work to communicate their vision and educate donors on the need to consider entire ecosystem’s health to ensure the survival of their favorite species. NSF, Google, IBM, Microsoft Research and others have worked with NatureServe and other conservation research organizations to bring big data technology into mainstream use in conservation.

Science.  Large efforts establish baselines and monitor the diverse ways species are responding to changing climate and other stressors. Research and observation of refugia is important. Large data analysis identifies future areas of likely resilience and adaptability. Often we don’t need to intervene once we see how nature is adapting.  We are often surprised by nature’s resilience but also by sudden step-function changes from one ecosystem type to another.

Where you can, it is still the goal to keep native species in place and prevent invasions of non-natives. But more nuanced definitions of invasive species allow for incorporation of well-behaved in-migrating species into healthy systems without regard to origin.  An even greater proportion of ecosystems have become novel because in and out migrations have resulted in combinations of species that haven’t been seen historically. With a broader sense of what to conserve, urban suburban and ex-urban areas become important targets of wildlife work.

Education of new conservationists has changed. Complex dynamic systems thinking, big data management skills and social sciences competencies are critical. A more multidisciplinary approach with an applied focus puts out a different kind of researcher or practitioner. The best science is developed in partnership with practitioners to ensure utility. 

Regulation/Policy. FWS and some State agencies are more proactive, putting together coalitions and incentives to improve and protect habitat to avoid having to list more species. Planning cycles have had to speed up or they risk authorizing actions that are already out of date.

There is little effort spent on preventing local extirpations when the species is doing well in other locales, or on preserving historic fidelity of protected places.  Less effort is spent eradicating invasive species that are not particularly harmful or have been established for a long time.  Focus is more on supporting the species you want to protect and giving them an edge against unwanted, nasty invasives.

Go to Endstate D: Collaboration