Saving 'Average' Birds – Hello, Bald Eagle? - Wastes Money, Scientists Say

Preserving the most 'evolutionarily distinctive' species, rather than the most popular, would get more bang for the buck.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Jan 7, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

The resurgence of the American bald eagle seems like the perfect example of successful wildlife conservation. From fewer than 500 breeding pairs in the early 1960s, when federal law first protected the species, recovery efforts have boosted bald eagle number to upwards of 10,000 breeding pairs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which terms bald eagle recovery “an American success story” and a “major achievement in conservation,” took the bald eagle off the endangered species list in 2007.

But now some scientists say it really wasn’t worth spending all that money on what they call a pretty average bird.

Why? Because from an evolutionary perspective, the bald eagle has many living relatives, which means that there are many near-matching “backups” of its genetic traits.

Compare the bald eagle to the Philippine eagle, an extremely endangered, large bird-of-prey. It has only one or two contemporary bird relatives—making it a storehouse of all-but-irreplaceable genetic information. In fact, the Philippine eagle is eighth on a list of the top 100 “evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered” (EDGE) bird species.

Philippine Eagle. (Photo: Romeo Ranoco/Reuters)

In a paper published study in the latest issue of the U.K. scientific journal Philosophical Transactions B, a team of researchers argue that with so many birds threatened with extinction, and so little money or time available to save any of them, we should prioritize the endangered avian species that have few or no living genetic relatives.

The team developed a “cost–benefit prioritization approach for conservation” of endangered birds, with evolutionary heritage and distinctiveness as the crucial factor.

That means the critically endangered California condor—North America’s largest bird and No. 3 on the EDGE list—would be deemed worth saving. But the federally protected northern spotted owl, which sparked epic fights to save its ancient forest habitat in the 1980s and 1990s, would be considered more expendable.

The scientists found that money spent on saving the most unique species would have four times the conservation impact.

“We do not advocate the removal of existing financial support for any species that are not ranked as high priorities in our return-on-investment analysis,” states the report. “Instead, we propose a complementary method for optimizing future resource allocation for bird conservation to maximize future” preservation of evolutionary diversity.

Steve Zack, the coordinator of bird conservation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that while the analysis is interesting, the approach it advocates is unlikely to catch fire in the real world.

“As a practitioner of conservation, this discussion is so much more complicated,” he said. “There isn’t a single pot of conservation money, completely unrestricted as to use, where we can collectively work together in a kumbaya way to conserve species based on a single criterion.

“We do extensively collaborate with other groups,” Zack added. “But it’s inevitable that we’re all competing for the same scarce pots of money.”

Bird conservation decisions have to incorporate evolutionary and ecological factors, Zack said, but also what’s important to donors, the desires of local communities, and effective relations with local and national governments.

In other words, saving a beautiful or popular bird may sometimes trump other considerations.

“In my world,” he said, “we’re attempting to wrestle with the recent and dramatic declines of vultures worldwide, due to poisoned carcasses, intentionally and unintentionally, throughout Asia and Africa. It’s a big, complicated, and recent problem.”

Vultures are about average in terms of evolutionary distinctiveness, he said, and many species are not charismatic. “They’re dull brown, and eating carcasses does not endear them to everyone.” But it helps keep both wild and human communities free of diseases.

“Their core assertion is that we’re ineffective and we’re misallocating funds,” Zack Said. “It’s such a simplistic way to look at the important work that many do within the very strong real world constraints of wildlife conservation. And the bottom line is the bottom line: There are insufficient resources to do and succeed at conservation. We’re really racing do what we can, where we can.”