Should this owl be saved?

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - I VAN SE­ME­NIUK

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 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.


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.


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