U-Idaho Ecologists Offer Plans on Preserving Nation’s Biodiversity

Wednesday, January 23 2013

By Jill Maxwell

The protected areas network within the continental United States is often viewed as one of the country’s best tools for securing vegetation communities and the species they support into the future.

Yet, the current network of protected U.S. lands does not fully capture the entire range of the country’s vegetation communities or ecological systems. The failure to adequately protect all of these systems could place the species that rely on them at greater risk of extinction due to climate change impacts.

So concludes a team of conservation ecologists and policy experts, including Jocelyn Aycrigg and Anne Davidson of the University of Idaho’s National Gap Analysis Program and J. Michael Scott, a Distinguished University Professor affiliated with the university’s fish and wildlife sciences program.

The team reports its analyses and alternatives for increasing the amount of protected habitats in an online science journal PLOS ONE. “Representation of Ecological Systems within the Protected Areas Network of the Continental United States” goes live today.

The authors used newly available national data on vegetation communities – classified by ecological systems – and the Protected Areas Database of the U.S. to conduct their analysis. They point out that the Convention on Biological Diversity, or CBD, has established a minimum target protection level of 17 percent for terrestrial areas.

Conservation planners seek to protect representatives of every vegetation community to conserve the evolutionary potential of the entire protected areas network, especially with pressures caused by climate change.

Today, the country’s network of protected areas totals about 10 percent of the area in which ecological systems occur. However, the network encompasses a disproportionate amount of high-elevation and poor-soil areas.

Overall, a total of 68 percent of the U.S.’ 518 ecological systems are not protected at CBD-recommended levels.

Their results could help set conservation priorities for ecological systems within the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which support landscape-level planning, the authors wrote.

They discussed alternative ways to increase protection levels for these ecosystems:

• Replace protected areas that contribute minimally to conservation of ecological systems with those of greater conservation value

• Expand the current 124-million-acre network of protected areas

• And increase the emphasis of maintaining biodiversity on some of the existing 346 million acres of publicly held lands currently managed for multiple uses.

They said their proposed alternatives are possibilities to be considered and evaluated when biodiversity conservation decisions are made.

Online at: www.plosone.org.
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