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Species vs Landscape: A False Dichotomy

By Hugh Possingham

It’s not a question of focusing on landscape or species, because they’re inseparable. You can’t conserve the landscape without accounting for what’s happening at the species level.

Recent events might lead us to believe that single species conservation is dead, and that landscapes rule. A move to landscape-scale conservation is driven by the supposed failure of single-species conservation.

First, there was the loss of the Christmas Island pipistrelle, a type of microbat, coupled with Dr Stephen Garnett’s chilling account of the demise of six taxa of Australian bird in Wingspan. Furthermore there has been a dramatic decline of northern Australian mammals and finches, which might lead some to think that single species conservation is failing and maybe we should shift the emphasis to the landscape scale.

Second, our own analysis suggests that single-species recovery plans don’t seem to do much. Environmental Decisions Group (EDG) researcher Madeleine Bottrill shows there is no evidence that having a recovery plan helps a species to recover. However, Bottrill points out that this might have something to do with the fact that there is no legal obligation to fund recovery actions prescribed by the plans, and frequently the recovery action stops with the production of the plan itself.

Third, there’s the demise of the Threatened Species Network.

And fourth, I’m told that bizarre misinterpretations of our research on triage are being made. Triage is about allocating funds to maximise the number of species we can save, not culling endangered taxa. However, I’ve heard some suggest that the very use of triage provides a licence to cut single species conservation. That would be ironic, as work with authorities in New Zealand have shown how smart allocation of funds (which is what we mean by triage) will allow them to secure the future of many more species than would otherwise be the case.

Superficially the rhetoric behind a switch in focus from species to landscapes is compelling. Surely we can be more “efficient” if we manage entire landscapes and tackle generic threats like fire, ferals and habitat degradation. There must be economies of scale that make landscape plans better than single species plans.

However, two recent bodies of research from EDG researchers have shown that the issues of landscapes and species are inseparable. In March, CSIRO released a cost-effectiveness plan for biodiversity conservation for a huge landscape – the Kimberley. The plan ranked actions by region, so therefore it’s a landscape plan. However, it used species persistence as the benefit, and threats to species to devise and quantify the benefits of actions. Without information about threats to species the plan could not exist. The alternative nebulous and fashionable options of restoring “landscape resilience” or “landscape function” are currently inoperable for proper planning because they can’t be quantified.

Further, another EDG researcher, Megan Evans from our University of Queensland node, has developed a continental-scale, spatially-explicit view of the most important biodiversity threats in Australia. How? By using data on the distribution of threats to threatened species.

And finally, in defence of single species research, prioritisation and conservation, there is the simple fact that this is what most Australians relate to.

So it’s simply not a question of landscape or species because they’re inseparable. The landscape consists of a large set of interacting species, and you can’t conserve the landscape without accounting for what’s happening at the species level.

What’s more, Australia can develop and deliver landscape-scale, species-based conservation plans. There is no scientific or economic impediment. The Kimberley plan cost about $100,000 to produce. To enact it would require 1/500th of the annual defence budget. Further, Mick McCarthy, Deputy Director of the Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, and colleagues showed that a tiny amount of money would bring bird extinctions to a standstill.

The problem, therefore, is simply that Australians are unwilling to compromise their other values, like health and defence. Changing the way we do conservation planning is another case of shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Professor Hugh Possingham is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, which forms part of the Environmental Decisions Group.