The fundamental goal of conservation is to restore and then maintain species and ecosystems as they would be in their natural state. In practice, this goal is rarely achievable because compromises with other social objectives are usually required. Therefore, when assessing the effectiveness of conservation efforts, it is best to treat the natural state as an aspirational goal. Success is measured in terms of the progress made toward that ultimate goal.
The assessment of conservation success also needs to consider efficiency. Conservation resources are limited, so it is not only the amount of progress that is important, but the progress per unit of effort. A conservation initiative that achieves twice the conservation gain as another for the same level of input must be considered more successful. This is the basis of the optimal resource allocation concept.
Several fundamental themes concerning conservation success can be discerned:
1. Effective leadership and collaboration. Conservation initiatives generally require the collaborative contributions of many people. But having an individual, core group, or political champion who provides leadership and drive can make a big difference in the level of success achieved.
2. Adequate resources. Conservation initiatives require people with appropriate skills and funding for implementation. Many conservation issues languish because of inadequate resources.
3. Authority for decision making and implementation. Conservation success is highest when the threats being addressed fall within the purview of conservation practitioners. The recovery of walleye and the reintroduction of the swift fox are cases in point. In these cases, the conservation practitioners were operating within their domain of authority and could ensure that implementation would occur. The recovery of caribou provides a contrasting example. In this case, conservation practitioners had little influence over the decisions that really mattered (e.g., tenure allocation, forest harvest rates, infrastructure development). They knew what needed to be done but could not compel the necessary action.
When it comes to conservation at the ecosystem level, conservation practitioners only have meaningful management authority within protected areas. On the working landscape, management authority is divided among government departments with competing mandates, making it difficult to advance ecosystem-level conservation initiatives. As we saw in the regional planning case study, decision making at this scale is complex, politicized, and slow. Moreover, conservation objectives are easily diluted or treated superficially.
4. An effective decision-making process. Decision making is central to conservation. Conservation problems need to be prioritized so that efforts are focused where they will have the greatest benefit. We also need to determine which management actions out of the spectrum of possibilities are most effective. And we need to find optimal solutions to trade-offs among competing objectives. Thus, effective conservation depends on effective decision making, exemplified by the structured decision-making framework. Effective processes are in turn a function of sound institutional structures.
The application of structured decision-making principles was evident in the successful case studies. However, these real-world examples did not neatly follow the template outlined in Chapter 10. In each case, certain aspects of the process were emphasized over others because the planning challenges differed. For example, in the reserve design case study, considerable effort was needed in clarifying the objectives (i.e., determining what needed to be represented). In the swift fox reintroduction, the main challenge was assessing the effectiveness of the available management alternatives. In the Al-Pac case study, the planning team spent years developing innovative management approaches rather than choosing from among ineffective existing options. And in the walleye case study, the decisions turned on stakeholder-based preferences, informed by science.
The case studies also illustrated the effect of planning scope. As the scope of planning expanded, decision making became more complex and unwieldy, with more voices at the table, more objectives to balance, and more knowledge gaps to fill. The best outcomes were achieved in relatively simple and well-contained systems. The walleye case study provides a good example. Decision-making methods that were highly successful at the scale of individual lakes bogged down when later applied at the regional scale.
Of course, it is not always possible to break large problems into smaller manageable chunks. Many conservation problems can only be addressed through regional-scale decisions that address the root causes of conflict.
5. Public and political support. Conservation decisions generally reflect compromise solutions. The nature of this compromise is influenced by both the method of decision making and the level of support the competing values enjoy. As a general rule, the higher the level of conflict, the higher the level of support needed to make substantive conservation gains. The swift fox reintroduction and efforts to recover caribou provide contrasting examples (Fig. 12.1).
Public support is critical, since it underpins the entire enterprise of conservation. Biodiversity is a public good and the vast majority of Canadian lands are publicly (Crown) owned. As discussed in Chapter 3, public support for conservation in Canada is strong and broad based. But it is not always effectively mobilized. Efforts to raise public awareness and engagement are often required to make progress.
It is also critical that public interests relating to conservation are properly represented in decision-making forums. Biodiversity has no voice of its own, so conservation concerns are sometimes overridden by the interests of local communities and industry. For example, in the caribou case study, we saw how local opposition caused the government to backtrack on caribou protection efforts in northwestern Alberta. It generally falls to conservation practitioners and other conservation proponents, both within and outside of government, to ensure that the public interest pertaining to biodiversity is given an effective voice. The application of conservation law, particularly SARA, can also be helpful in advancing the wider public interest.
The level of political support is another important factor in determining conservation outcomes. As we saw in the regional planning case study, the presence (or absence) of a political champion can make a big difference in how much progress is achieved. Conservation practitioners can generate political support for conservation by informing elected officials of conservation issues and providing workable solutions. But in many cases, the ruling party’s ideology and policy platform will have an overriding influence on the positions it takes. Advancing conservation at this level requires political engagement and is mostly undertaken by environmental groups with a mandate for such activities.