Conserving the abundance in nonthreatened species

Date: 25, Sep, 2019
Author(s):   D. Baker, S. Garnett, J. O'Connor, G. Ehmke, R. Clarke, J. Woinarski, M. McGeoch
Publisher: Wiley - Conservation Biology

Human modification of the environment is driving declines in population size and distributional extent of much of the world's biota. These declines extend to many of the most abundant and widespread species, for which proportionally small declines can result in the loss of vast numbers of individuals, biomass, and interactions. These losses could have major localized effects on ecological and cultural processes and services without elevating a species’ global extinction risk. Although most conservation effort is directed at species threatened with extinction in the very near term, the value of retaining abundance regardless of global extinction risk is justifiable based on many biodiversity or ecosystem service metrics, including cultural services, at scales from local to global. The challenges of identifying conservation priorities for widespread and abundant species include quantifying the effects of species’ abundance on services and understanding how these effects are realized as populations decline. Negative effects of population declines may be disconnected from the threat processes driving declines because of species movements and environment flows (e.g., hydrology). Conservation prioritization for these species shares greater similarity with invasive species risk assessments than extinction risk assessments because of the importance of local context and per capita effects of abundance on other species. Because conservation priorities usually focus on preventing the extinction of threatened species, the rationale and objectives for incorporating declines of nonthreatened species must be clearly articulated, going beyond extinction risk to encompass the range of likely harmful effects (e.g., secondary extinctions, loss of ecosystem services) if declines persist or are not reversed. Research should focus on characterizing the effects of local declines in species that are not threatened globally across a range of ecosystem services and quantifying the spatial distribution of these effects through the distribution of abundance. The case for conserving abundance in nonthreatened species can be made most powerfully when the costs of losing this abundance are better understood.