Should this owl be saved?
A provocative new approach to species recovery aims to protect more animals by prioritizing those that offer the best return on investment. But, as science reporter Ivan Semeniuk writes, it could mean saying goodbye to the burrowing owl and other iconic species
Canada’s efforts to save threatened species are failing. Can a new approach based on business principles turn the tide?
For the record, Tara Martin has nothing against the burrowing owl. She knows what it’s like, first hand, to witness the unlikely sight of a bird of prey emerging from a hole in the ground, or to watch it wheel across the sky and then come down to feed its young against the sweeping backdrop of Canada’s prairie landscape.
“Burrowing owls are utterly thrilling,” says Dr. Martin, a conservation biologist at the University of British Columbia and an avid birder. “As a species, they’ve got a lot of character.”
They are also in existential peril. With fewer than one thousand breeding pairs left in Canada, burrowing owls are listed among our most endangered species. In principle, Dr. Martin would like to save them. But in practice, she’s advocating a new approach to conservation that admits a harsh fact: Saving burrowing owls, at least in this country, is likely beyond our means.
Dr. Martin has become Canada’s leading voice for what may seem like a coldly corporate take on conservation – one in which decisions are not based on which animals are most in need but on which strategies are most likely to provide the best return on investment. This method, which she calls “priority threat management,” approaches conservation almost as though various species were assets in a stock portfolio. “It’s very close to a basic costbenefit analysis,” Dr. Martin says. “But instead of a monetary benefit, we’re thinking about the benefit to species’ persistence.”
It’s a provocative shift in thinking. Some environmentalists fear it’s also a misguided one, because – they say – it emphasizes which species drive up the cost of conservation, allowing for the possibility that some may be written off if the price tag is deemed too high. This includes risky bets, such as the iconic but beleaguered mountain caribou, or the southern resident killer whale, which now finds itself at the centre of the Trans Mountain pipeline debate. The fear is that the analysis will become a convenient tool for industry and governments looking to dodge responsibility for saving species.
But Dr. Martin’s focus on the cost efficiency of conservation is gaining allies at a crucial moment.
It’s no secret that efforts to save Canada’s threatened species are failing badly. Of the more than 700 plants and animals currently listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, most are losing ground at an alarming rate. According to WWF-Canada, those species have declined by an average of 28 per cent since the act came into effect in 2002. In other words, being listed for federal protection looks less like a rescue operation and more like a terminal ward.
The act requires Ottawa to protect listed species, but the law does not offer best practices on how to save them, nor advise what conservationists should do when confronted with a number of competing needs. With so many species in peril, and limited funds available, Canada’s conservation efforts to date look like a patchwork of measures guided as much by intuition and chance as by science.
In hopes of reversing a dismal trend, the Trudeau government this year announced a $1.3-billion boost for nature conservation. But given the standard approach, Dr. Martin says, it is impossible to know what results to expect from that increase, or to assess whether the money is being well spent.
Her alternative, first developed in Australia, is aimed squarely at that knowledge gap. Now, with a newly published study conducted on the burrowing owl’s home turf in Saskatchewan, Dr. Martin’s ideas are quietly reshaping how federal decision makers tackle Canada’s biodiversity crisis. In high-profile hot spots, such as the Fraser River in B.C. or the Rocky Mountains, a conservation reboot is already under way.
In Vancouver, Dr. Martin’s academic headquarters is located within the Department of Forestry and Conservation Sciences at UBC. But her methodology could just as easily find a home at the business school, a short walk up the campus mall.
Dr. Martin’s method looks at the question of how best to allocate money toward saving a group of species in a particular ecosystem. To determine the best outcomes, she multiplies the benefits of each possible action with the feasibility of that action being taken. The result is then divided by the cost to yield a cost efficiency value for the action.
Actions that benefit more species tend to score higher. But sometimes the most beneficial actions of all are the least realizable. For example, if all cats were kept indoors, the benefits to songbirds would be extremely high, but the achievability of such an action is also extremely low. Only by doing the math is it clear which actions are most cost effective.
For Dr. Martin, the method offers a clear-headed way out of a trap that has hampered species recovery in the past.
“Often, we’re investing in species with the lowest likelihood of recovery at the highest cost,” she says. “By default, other species are getting neglected.”
But not everyone is persuaded. Rachel Plotkin, a conservation expert with the David Suzuki Foundation, worries that the approach makes it easy for governments and industry to make the case that some species are too expensive to save.
Calling priority threat management a “Noah’s Ark approach” that is overly reductionist, she cautions that it merely invites continued destruction of habitat for species whose recovery is seen as unattainable. Instead, she says: “We need to change the way we approach allowing industrial activity in the habitat of species at risk … it needs to be the cost of doing business.”
Dr. Martin counters that we are already consigning species to oblivion – perhaps more than we have to – simply by not including the fact that resources are finite. What her approach does, she argues, is quantify the disconnect between the amount we are spending on species recovery and the outcome we want to achieve.
“The hard reality is that, until we have sufficient funding, this is going to be our best strategy,” she says.
To underscore the point, she adds that the price tag for successfully recovering every listed species in Canada is a figure that has never been estimated with any degree of scientific rigour.
“If someone asked me how much it would cost, I wouldn’t have the answer,” Dr. Martin adds. “That’s crazy. Without that, how can we ever expect to close the funding gap?”
It’s a view that is gaining traction within the conservation community.
“There’s an urgency and a growing need for us to be able to allocate our conservation dollars efficiently and as effectively as possible,” says James Snider, vice-president of science, research and innovation for WWFCanada, which has been working with Dr. Martin. While stressing that the organization is still in the early stages of assessing how it might apply priority threat management to its own initiatives, Mr. Snider says “it’s one of those new ways of thinking that appeals to us in a practical way.”
DR. MARTIN’S METHOD
Dr. Martin grew up on B.C.’s Salt Spring Island where she spent her childhood among the towering Douglas firs or in a rowboat jigging for rockfish – hardly the launch pad for boardroom-style thinking on species management. The idyllic setting inspired a love of nature, but it was the relationships between living things, not just their biology, that fired her interest, and eventually led her to a PhD at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
Her graduate work involved studying some of the unique woodland birds that are native to eastern Australia, including the black-chinned honeyeater, which she once observed build a nest out of the bum fluff of a nearby mother koala. But while documenting the impact of cattle grazing on the birds’ threatened habitat, she began to realize her scientific findings were unlikely to influence environmental management policy in the region.
“Doing the research on its own was not enough,” she says. “We needed to go the next step and think about economics and how people make decisions.”
Dr. Martin’s thinking was guided by the work of her PhD super- visor, Hugh Possingham, a mathematician turned biologist who is known for introducing the field of decision science to species conservation.
The roots of the discipline date back to the Second World War, when allied strategists were learning how best to deploy military resources across multiple theatres of conflict. “It emerged through acts of desperation,” says Dr. Possingham, who divides his time between his academic position in Australia and his role as chief scientist for the U.S.based Nature Conservancy.
By the 1990s, the field had evolved, but it was mainly used as a tool for resource management. Dr. Possingham saw the potential for another application: improving the outlook for global biodiversity.
In an early example of the approach, Dr. Possingham collaborated with the government of New Zealand to work out how
best to allocate its roughly $27million budget for species conservation. Using optimization techniques, he found that he could dramatically boost the number of species that were included in recovery plans, from 130 to more than 300, mainly by prioritizing actions that benefited more than one threatened species at a time.
Dr. Martin’s contribution has been to develop the method so that it can be applied across an entire ecosystem. It relies on data gathering and exhaustive discussions with experts in order to generate reliable numbers that can be fed into the equations. It also means clarifying the goals of a species recovery plan, something that may take months to pin down in cases where stakeholders are in disagreement over the details. Over the years, Dr. Martin has become adept at wrestling with such complex scenarios.
“She’s done more of that than anybody,” Dr. Possingham says.
Her first chance to test her approach came in 2010 when she was leading a conservation decisions team for CSIRO, Australia’s federal science agency. The Kimberley region, located in the remote northwestern corner of the continent, hosts an impressive array of improbable creatures, from egg-laying mammals to spectacular, rainbow-hued finches. Working with a colleague, she prioritized actions for the conservation of 637 vertebrate species in the region. Authorities took up her recommendation when it came time to allocate funding.
Interest in the method grew, both as a way to prioritize decisions and to calculate the conservation activities that mining companies should underwrite to offset their impact on species. To- day, priority threat management as been applied across about one third of Australia. But Dr. Martin was also looking back toward Canada, convinced that there was a need and a place for her approach to take root.
When the prairie grass is at its greenest and the sunlight is just so, the SoD can feel like a world that no longer exists. The area known as South of the Divide is an ecological jewel in Saskatchewan defined by the subtle boundary separating the part of the province that drains south into the Missouri River, from the part that drains toward Hudson Bay.
“You imagine that this is what it must have been like for thousands of years,” says Mark Wayland, describing more than 14,000 square kilometres of sweeping plains and gentle hills that roll across the southwest of the province like a giant, slightly wrinkled carpet.
As head of conservation planning for the Canadian Wildlife Service in Saskatoon, Mr. Wayland has gained a deep appreciation for this landscape, about half of which remains wild, uncultivated prairie. And while it might strike visitors as vast and empty, the region is home to some of Canada’s most threatened species, including the swift fox, the greater sage-grouse and – one of SoD’s most photogenic residents – the burrowing owl. Hemmed in on all sides by more than a century of agricultural expansion, the SoD is their last redoubt.
In recent years, the SoD has also become the archetype for a new trend in how the federal government approaches species conservation. Faced with a growing backlog of listed species requiring action, officials have rec- ognized the redundancy of creating separate recovery plans in places where many species face a common threat, such as habitat loss. When it came to the SoD, experts were directed to create a plan covering many species.
The plan was published in early 2017. It covers a wide array of possible actions that could enhance species recovery in southwestern Saskatchewan – for example, promoting farming practices that reduce disturbance, assessing the impact of predators, monitoring for disease and delivering community education programs.
But in grouping all of the SoD’s species at risk together under one plan, the government was now faced with a new challenge.
“When you get into that kind of multi-species framework, the decisions become very complex,” says Paul Smith, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada. “The potential is that you’ll be faced with a long list of possible recovery actions and not know what to do first.”
Dr. Smith knew of Tara Martin, who had, by then, returned to British Columbia and was beginning to work with the provincial government there. It was he who pushed to bring her in to look at the SoD as a pilot study and an audition for priority threat management.
The project began by assembling everyone involved in the SoD recovery plan for what Dr. Martin calls a three-day “data elicitation workshop.” During the meeting, every bit of relevant information on the SoD ecosystem and its pressures was wrung out of the participants and fed into spreadsheets and algorithms.
“They are the most intense workshops I’ve ever been involved in,” says Laura Kehoe, a post-doctoral researcher who works with Dr. Martin. “The amount of data that we get from all of the experts in the room is impressive, and that’s the beauty of it –that we can take this knowledge and convert it into something that is quantifiable and can feed into creating the best management options.”
Dr. Smith says that another appealing feature of the method is that it helps tame the uncertainties that arise whenever field biologists are in doubt about how a species might respond to a particular action. Because the calculations incorporate both the best- and worst-case outcomes that might result from any action, it becomes easier to spot when a lack of knowledge is genuinely worth worrying about.
“The only uncertainties that matter are those that would change our decision from one action to another,” Dr. Martin says.
The outcome of the calculations, newly published in the research journal Conservation Letter, show what can be achieved with different levels of investment in the SoD. Of the 15 species in the study, only two – the eastern yellow-bellied Racer (a snake) and the Mormon metalmark (a butterfly) – have a better than 50 per cent chance of recovering when no additional funding is provided. For an investment of $1.4-million a year, two additional species — the blacktailed prairie dog and the longbilled curlew – are secured. At $4.8-million a year, the number jumps to nine, and so on. The best case scenario is a $126-million investment spread over 20 years that funds all the recovery strategies available and has a good chance of recovering 13 of the 15 species.
Even then, the burrowing owl and the black-footed ferret have a low chance of reaching sustainable numbers on the SoD. In the case of the burrowing owl, the dilemma is that it is a migratory species that faces additional threats outside of Canada.
Does that make the burrowing owl too expensive to save? Not exactly, says Dr. Martin, but the analysis makes it clear that any amount of money spent within the SoD is unlikely to save it, even while other species benefit. The best hope for the owl in Canada will require going beyond the Species at Risk Act to develop agreements with other jurisdictions that span the owl’s range, including in the United States and Mexico.
Mr. Wayland, who participated in the process, said the results bring a new level of clarity to decision-making in the region, although he adds that success still depends on building bridges with stakeholders, including cattle farmers and the natural gas industry in the region so that they see species recovery in a positive light.
Meanwhile, federal decision makers have taken the results on board. “It’s getting a lot of buzz,” says Mr. Wayland of the SoD study.
A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Change Canada says that the ministry “is actively exploring [Dr. Martin’s] work and how it might be applied.” Although priority threat management is not yet official policy, there are ample signs that it will be used to inform how Ottawa divides up its new conservation fund to benefit up to 200 terrestrial species – an effort dubbed the Pan Canadian Approach.
Dr. Martin’s team has, in the meantime, been applying the method to a far more complex setting.
WHERE THEORY MEETS PRACTICE
Sprawling like the hand of a watery giant, the region around the Fraser River Delta in British Columbia holds an urban population that is expected to top 3.5 million by 2040. It includes Canada’s busiest port, a large share of the province’s key industries, and it accounts for a quarter of B.C.’s agricultural production. Historically, the Fraser is one of the largest salmon-bearing rivers in the world and it remains a cultural cornerstone for indigenous people who have lived on its banks for 10,000 years.
It is also home to more than 100 terrestrial and marine species of concern, which arguably makes the delta the scene of the most challenging and pressing conservation crisis in the country.
“The more you learn about the Fraser, the more you realize the gravity of the situation,” says Dr. Kehoe. She is now in the final stages of assembling a report on the Fraser that will show how all of the species at risk in the region have a good chance of surviving, including the southern resident killer whale – but only with an investment in actions that total $345-million over 25 years.
This is where critics say the method may falter if governments balk at the price tag. Dr. Martin says the figure needs to be balanced with the even greater economic value of an intact ecosystem, including the millions of dollars that killer whales alone net in tourism revenue.
Others offer a range of concerns and support for the idea. While no one in the conservation community would argue against spending resources wisely, the real issue is what happens when a signature species is shown to be unlikely to recover despite costly measures. This is precisely the situation for the mountain caribou in B.C.’s Kootenay region – another area that Dr. Martin has studied.
But Dr. Martin says that looking at the cost efficiency of conservation measures can make species recovery more goal-oriented and palatable to industrial partners. “That has been an advantage in terms of support,” she says. “We’re getting huge buy-in.”
Kate Lindsay, vice-president of sustainability and environmental partnerships for the Forestry Products Association of Canada, agrees on this point. She adds that she’s is encouraged by Dr. Martin’s work and its whole ecosystem approach, in part because it puts costs on the table up front.
“I think the benefit to this approach is having that honest conversation about what are the possible recovery actions,” she says.
Yet, there remains a larger concern that a focus on cost efficiency obscures the reality that tremendous wealth has already been extracted from Canada’s ecosystems to enrich industry and provinces at the expense of species. This is something not factored into the equations of priority threat management. Skeptics of the method say that the real solution is an honest reckoning with the faulty policies and environmental mismanagement that has placed so many of Canada’s species at risk in the first place.
“Nature has been chronically undervalued for decades,” says Aerin Jacob, a senior scientist with the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative. “Given that legacy … it’s no surprise that species become endangered and expensive to recover.”
Dr. Martin says she knows there are colleagues still to win over, but with $1.3-billion in federal money at play there is also something more at stake.
“We have the best opportunity to make an impact that we’ve ever had for species conservation in Canada,” she said. “The hope is that we don’t squander it.”
UBC’s Dr. Tina Martin notes that we often invest conservation dollars in species with the lowest likelihood of recovery at the highest cost, which leads to other species being neglected by default.