Planet Earth

Ecological Tradeoffs

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 1, 2011 12:35 PM

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Via Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, I see that Peter Gleick, living in an imaginary world where tradeoffs never occur, is outraged that some people in California are daring to consider that not all endangered species, because of their dire status, can be saved:

In a desperate attempt to make it easier to solve California's complex and contentious water problems, a dangerous new idea has recently been floated -- intentionally letting some species go extinct rather than take the difficult steps needed to save them and their ecosystems. This idea should be quashed, smothered, strangled, and quickly tossed in the dumpster of failed ideas.

The first hint of this appeared earlier in February in the 52-page study released by the Delta Stewardship Council. That report argued that it was possible that some species of fish might be so devastated already and their ecosystems so ruined that they were unlikely to survive even with significant efforts to save them.

Unfortunately, in the real world, government biologists and land and water managers have to grapple with the competing needs of society and species. It's a complex jigsaw that isn't pretty or fair, as anyone familiar with the ongoing (and flawed) efforts to restore the Florida Everglades is aware. This doesn't mean I'm against herculean, against-all-odds initiatives to save individual species. Out West, one such noble effort has been underway for decades, terrifically chronicled by Hillary Rosner in her recent award-winning story. Still, let's not kid ourselves. There are winnners and losers in our constructed landscapes. As I discussed here in 2009, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has (unofficially) acknowledged, in an internal, draft-stage planning document (my emphasis):

that some populations and species will be lost, and some will only survive in the wild through our direct and continuous intervention. We will be especially challenged to conserve species and habitats that are particularly vulnerable to climate-driven changes, but we will dedicate our best efforts and expertise to the task, recognizing that we cannot save everything. We will need to make choices, and we will need to apply ourselves where we can make the greatest difference.

Is there a better way forward than than this cold-eyed, calculating approach? Probably not, at least with respect to determinations of single species made in a real-world framework of limited resources. But as Revkin notes in another post, we're increasingly faced with individual extinctions because

we have an Endangered Species Act intended to save species on the brink, but not a Thriving Ecosystems Act that tries to monitor and sustain diverse communities of species before bad things happen.

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