Conservation Triage – How a Math Formula Could Decide Fate of Endangered U.S. Species

The title says it all. Considering that US citizens pay more in taxes than they do for food and clothing, is it any surprise that a lot of us want lower taxes. Here are some selected quotes from an article titled How a Math Formula Could Decide Fate of Endangered U.S. Species

It’s all about the 80/20 rule or, to put it another way, picking the low hanging fruit.

1) “Arizona State University ecologist Leah Gerber presented a plan to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that would use a mathematical formula to direct government money away from endangered and threatened species she calls “over-funded failures” and toward plants and animals that can more easily be saved.”

2) “Gavin Shire, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an email to Reuters that the agency is examining the controversial proposal.

“We have worked closely with this group of scientists as they developed this new conservation tool, and while we have not made any determinations yet, are impressed with its potential,” Shire said. “We will be exploring further if and how we may best use it to improve the effectiveness of our recovery efforts.””

3) “The Endangered Species Act bars the government from deciding which animals and plants become extinct. But funding one species over another could let some decline or die out.

“I just don’t think it’s possible to save all species even though I would like to,” said Gerber, a self-described Democrat and environmentalist. “That’s an uncomfortable thing to say and I don’t like it but that’s the reality.”

Gerber said as many as 200 additional species could be saved by directing funds away from species such as the iconic northern spotted owl – whose numbers have declined despite millions of dollars spent on conservation efforts – and toward those with a better chance of survival.”

4) “So-called conservation triage is already being used in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales, but Gerber has developed a specific algorithm for the United States that considers the expense and needs of local species as well as rules laid out by the Endangered Species Act.”

5) “Gerber came up with the idea for a U.S. model while Democratic former President Barack Obama was in office, pitching the concept to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials before her algorithm was developed. Given the proposed budget cuts, some proponents say it may have a better chance of adoption under the Trump administration.”

6) “Despite protected habitat and about $4.5 million, adjusted for inflation, that Gerber calculates has been spent annually between 1989 and 2011 to help the owl recover, federal statistics show its numbers have declined by about 4 percent per year. About 4,800 northern spotted owls are left in North America, according to the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.”

7) “One proponent is Hugh Possingham, an Australian scientist and an architect of the policy in that country. Now the chief scientist for U.S. environmental group The Nature Conservancy, Possingham wants to see similar policies adopted in the United States.

“I’m always amazed that this is a contentious issue. I’ve had people discuss it with me and end up with a fit,” he said. “But the mathematics and the economics of doing the best you can with the resources you have – I don’t know why that’s contentious at all.”

The Australian state of New South Wales, which in 2013 adopted a strategic prioritization algorithm, decided to keep funding recovery efforts for some species that the model ranked as low priorities, said James Brazill-Boast, senior project officer with the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage.

For example, he said, the koala would be ranked low, but Australians would never support letting the beloved creatures, listed as vulnerable by law, become extinct.

Gerber said U.S. officials could similarly decide to continue supporting species that her algorithm might reject – or non-profits could step in to help.

“I don’t think the agency wants to let things go extinct,” Gerber said. “I don’t want to let things go extinct. … But we can actually achieve better outcomes by being strategic.””

7 Comments

  1. The article is headlined, “How a Math Formula Could Decide Fate of Endangered U.S. Species.“ But of course it’s not a formula doing the deciding. The formula is just a tool used to support decisions already made by a society that spends more money to build a single medium-sized bridge than on its federal wildlife agency, which itself seems like a hobbled bureaucracy that’s allowed to “save” species inasmuch as it doesn’t inconvenience recreational animal-killing or moneyed interests. What this article describes isn’t “conservation triage” or picking low-hanging fruit. It describes looking down and pretending one’s toes are the horizon.

    Regarding the “lower taxes” framing: if the USFWS ceased to exist, the US government would save 0.00085% of its revenues. For every $10,000 one pays in federal taxes, then, nine bucks could stay in your pocket. Being “realistic” about those wasteful, pour-the-money-down-the-drain spotted owl programs would save a whopping sixty-eight cents. So that’s another way of looking at this “decision”: are spotted owls worth sixty-eight cents? If the answer is no, then by all means, algorithms away.

    Meanwhile that hypothetical $10,000 taxpayer would be sending $2,356.00 to the military — the one expenditure that nobody in public life is ever allowed to question.

  2. A correction to that: my back-of-the-napkin estimates dramatically overstated what’s spent on spotted owls. At $4.5 million per year, the owls account for .0015% of the $3 billion USFWS budget. So out of a taxpayer’s $10,000 burden, slightly more than a penny is going to spotted owls.

  3. Here another angle. With the number of people seriously effected by very unhealthy air quality as a result of wildfires annually, the dollars spent on conservation will be of little concern, regardless of amount. Unfortunately, the fate of several species including the NSO is also of little concern when compared to clean air, in most people’s thoughts. Air qualities up and down the west coast are ranging from 60-241, with 0-50 being good. This is being seen more as a result of mismanagement and less as a result of climate change, by the people I talk to. Two years ago this wasn’t the case.
    It is possible to manage for species, improve forest health, harvest timber, and generate funds for conservation. This would require a change in fire monitoring tactics used by the USFS, a dropping of rhetoric from both sides of the timber debate, and a change in agencies policy’s from “you can’t” to “how can we make this work”. But to think that citizens as a majority are going to continue to fund agencies that they perceive, right or wrong, to be in part responsible for something directly effecting them, is both naive and detrimental to the greater good. Most people are willing to support things that the deem necessary, but not in their backyard, air quality is definitely in their backyard.
    If the current policies and procedures aren’t proactively changed to be less burdensome and more productive the pendulum is going to swing way back past center.

    • You say “This [air quality problem] is being seen more as a result of mismanagement and less as a result of climate change, by the people I talk to.”

      The people you talk to don’t understand how forests work. There’s always enough fuel to carry severe fires during hot-dry-windy weather, REGARDLESS OF WHETHER THE FORESTS ARE LOGGED.

      There is a significant risk that logging will make fire hazard worse instead of better because, (a) logging will move small/hazardous fuels from the canopy to the ground where those fuels are more available for combustion and thus more hazardous, and, in spite of best intentions, such logging slash is rarely adequately treated; (b) logging will open the canopy and make the fire microclimate hotter, dryer, and windier, which will reduce fuel moisture and increase flame length and rate of fire spread; and (c) logging will expose mineral soil and make available more light, water, nutrients, thus stimulating the germination and growth of future surface and ladder fuels. Also, logging will often require an expanded and improved road system, which will combine with the more open forest to invite more human use such as firewood cutting and OHV trespass thus increasing the risk of human ignitions.

      • As always, logging is thought of as the clearcutting and high-grading variety, with no cleanup of slash. Of course, the Forest Service doesn’t do much of that kind of logging, anymore. Thinning can restore tree densities, restore species compositions and result in a more sustainable and resilient forest. Of course, it’s not hot, dry and windy, everyday. Of course, not all windy days have wildfire ignitions. Of course, yes, we CAN reduce fire intensities and increase forest health, while reducing smoke impacts.

        Or, we can do nothing and embrace “Whatever Happens”, including those same human activities which impact public forests.

  4. Thanks Gil, for bringing this article up for discussion. I normally would’ve stopped reading when confronted with the farcical biases, extortionist reasoning and false solutions implied in the lede itself:

    “… the proposal could effectively let some plants and animals become extinct so cash-strapped agencies can use more of their funds to save others.”

    If the implications of this clever piece of neoliberal propaganda weren’t so grim and insidious, it would be laughable as self-parody, and perfect fodder for Stephen Colbert’s late night humor.

    How genteel the notion that we “let” extinction occur primarily because there aren’t “enough” tax revenues allocated for captured agencies to accomplish their original missions in the face of the current Mass Extinction event — caused by market based, predatory capitalism.

    “Ecologist” Leah Gerber is routinely on record cheerleading the neoliberal canard that if we put a “price” on the natural world including OUR air (carbon), forests, soil, water, and virtually every living thing that swims, crawls, flies, walks, and slithers in the biosphere– in order to be traded on the market as commodities — our problems will be fixed. Gerber, in fact, champions putting a price on whales as, ” a market-based solution to saving whales.”!

    (What a brilliant “market based solution” : prevent market based extinctions through commodification and financialization of all life forms to be traded in the marketplace!)

    Alternatively, (as I understand your argument, Gil), because we are already suffering from tax burdens, we must allow agencies to permit extinctions.

    The main problem to that argument is the failed fiscal policies and regressive tax policies of neoliberalism is the causation of the problem. They create the failure of government to uphold the social contract in the first place. The major tenets of neoliberalism are regressive tax policies; deregulation; primacy of “the globalized market” and its “free trade agreements” ; privatization, (financialization and commodification of the entire biosphere.)

    If there existed in the US, the same progressive tax policies found in Northern Europe and elsewhere in civil societies which have a far more equitable distribution of wealth, health, education, standard of living and higher quality of life than the US, we would not be facing an existential crisis playing God with entire species, including our own.

    Problem solving 101: discriminate between symptoms and causation. Merely treating symptoms without treating the causes of problems means the problems will remain and likely worsen.

    Second, as Einstein noted, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” More of same neoliberal fiscal and tax policies claiming to address problems created by neoliberalism brings to mind another truism of Einstein’s: (paraphrased) “The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.”

    The cause of the problem is market-based, neoliberal predatory capitalism and its amoral, extortionist, exploitative, regressive policies. “Market based solutions” is an oxymoronic snake oil con game, no matter who sells it — whether “ecologist”, or “environmentalist.” Rather it will accelerate our urgent problems, not fix them.

    Besides, money can never be equated with life without also accelerating its extinction.

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