Jump to Main Content
Elemental Conservation Units: Communicating Extinction Risk without Dictating Targets for Protection
- WOOD, CHRIS C., GROSS, MART R.
- Conservation biology 2008 v.22 no.1 pp. 36-47
- biodiversity, biologists, economics, extinction, humans, immigration, planning, politics, risk, scientists
- Conservation biologists mostly agree on the need to identify and protect biodiversity below the species level but have not yet resolved the best approach. We addressed 2 issues relevant to this debate. First, we distinguished between the abstract goal of preserving the maximum amount of unique biodiversity and the pragmatic goal of minimizing the loss of ecological goods and services given that further loss of biodiversity seems inevitable. Second, we distinguished between the scientific task of assessing extinction risk and the normative task of choosing targets for protection. We propose that scientific advice on extinction risk be given at the smallest meaningful scale: the elemental conservation unit (ECU). An ECU is a demographically isolated population whose probability of extinction over the time scale of interest (say 100 years) is not substantially affected by natural immigration from other populations. Within this time frame, the loss of an ECU would be irreversible without human intervention. Society's decision to protect an ECU ought to reflect human values that have social, economic, and political dimensions. Scientists can best inform this decision by providing advice about the probability that an ECU will be lost and the ecological and evolutionary consequences of that loss in a form that can be integrated into landscape planning. The ECU approach provides maximum flexibility to decision makers and ensures that the scientific task of assessing extinction risk informs, but remains distinct from, the normative social challenge of setting conservation targets.