Under SARA, the implementation aspects of recovery planning are supposed to be addressed through action plans. But in practice, these plans only take us part of the way there. Most plans describe what we might do, rather than define what we will do. This is because the action planning process has lacked the structure and authority needed to grapple with trade-offs among competing objectives (McShane et al. 2011).

We will begin our exploration of trade-offs by examining the concept of conservation triage. Later, in Chapter 10, we will work through a structured approach to decision making that is designed to handle multi-objective planning. Several case studies involving trade-offs are presented in Chapter 11.

Prioritizing Species: Triage

Trade-off decisions are not limited to conflicts between conservation objectives and competing land-use objectives. There can also be trade-offs between competing conservation objectives, which arise as a consequence of capacity constraints. If we cannot undertake all of the conservation projects we would like, then we need to set priorities. These sorts of trade-off decisions are often referred to as conservation triage (Bottrill et al. 2008) or optimum resource allocation (Joseph et al. 2009), and they have generated considerable controversy within the conservation community. We will examine the debate over conservation triage in detail because it provides useful insights into the complexities of conservation decision making.

In its original battlefield application, triage was a form of medical prioritization used to maximize overall survival in the face of limited resources. Medical care was focused on patients that would benefit most from treatment, and away from patients that were likely to survive without treatment or who were expected to die despite treatment.

In a conservation context, triage has been defined as the efficient allocation of conservation resources to maximize conservation returns under a constrained budget (Bottrill et al. 2008). This is achieved by explicitly accounting for the costs, benefits, and likelihood of success of alternative courses of action. This approach is also referred to as maximizing the return on investment (Murdoch et al. 2007). A prominent example is the prioritization of global conservation opportunities by international organizations like WWF (Bottrill et al. 2008). These organizations funnel their resources to projects expected to achieve the most conservation gain per dollar expended. The concept has also been applied to the prioritization of species, populations, habitats, and mitigation measures, at multiple spatial scales (Carwardine et al. 2008; McDonald-Madden et al. 2008; Joseph et al. 2009; Auerbach et al. 2015; Gerber 2016; Martin et al. 2018). The form of conservation triage that has generated most of the controversy involves the prioritization of species at the national scale.

The proponents of species triage make two key points. First, available conservation resources are usually inadequate relative to conservation need (Gerber 2016). This point is generally not contested. Second, the conventional objective of maintaining all species has the effect of directing a disproportionate share of available conservation resources to the most endangered species because they are in most urgent need of assistance (Wilson et al. 2011). There is an opportunity cost in doing this, as described by Bottrill et al. (2008):

While resources are spent on actions unlikely to succeed or costly to implement, a whole suite of other assets are likely to receive inadequate investment given a limited budget. The opportunity cost of conservation (i.e. what else could be achieved with the same resources or the opportunities that are lost) is rarely reported or evaluated. (p. 650)

For the proponents of triage, what matters most is overall conservation outcomes, not the fate of individual species. The logical course of action is to allocate available resources with maximal efficiency, “such that the marginal rate of increase in viability is equalized across all threatened species” (Possingham et al. 2002, p. 1). Simply put, the aim is to achieve the greatest good for the most species, given the resources available.

The proponents of triage argue that ethical concerns about allowing some species to go extinct do not enter the debate because species losses are the result of inadequate funding, not the efficient allocation of funding (Bottrill et al. 2008). Moreover, they argue that it is better to make the trade-offs between funding and conservation outcomes explicit rather than allowing the public to believe that commitments to maintain all species can actually be achieved at current levels of funding, which they cannot. In this light, triage is simply honest decision making (McCarthy and Possingham 2012).

Opponents of triage do not dispute the need to make optimal decisions. They challenge the assumptions implicit in the triage concept and, by extension, its ability to achieve optimal outcomes (Jachowski and Kesler 2009; Parr et al. 2009; Buckley 2016; Wilson and Law 2016; Vucetich et al. 2017).

First, the opponents of triage argue that a battlefield analogy is not appropriate because conservation resources are generally not moveable assets like bandages or bags of IV fluid. For example, in Canada, much of the funding for conservation programs comes from provincial governments and resource companies. These organizations want to maintain control over their budgets and spend their money locally, rather than optimize the common good. Furthermore, high-profile species, like the polar bear, attract public interest and act as magnets for conservation funding (Small 2011). Any effort to shift resources away from these flagship species on the basis of increased efficiency will be resisted and could well result in a drop in overall funding levels if public interest in conservation wanes. Finally, much of the cost of conservation comes in the form of trade-offs with other social objectives, and these are generally not transferable. For example, the cost of curtailing the salmon harvest in BC to support killer whales is not something that can be redirected to support pine martens in Newfoundland. If conservation resources cannot be readily reallocated, then we are not implementing triage, we are just abandoning difficult cases.

A second shortcoming of the battlefield analogy is that conservation is an ongoing process supported by a flow of resources, not a fixed store of resources. Consequently, conservation practitioners are responsible not only for the efficient allocation of resources but also for acquiring resources on an ongoing basis. The opponents of triage suggest that this second responsibility is more important than the first, “to think otherwise may be analogous to arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship in the most efficient manner” (Vucetich et al. 2017, p. 3).

The issue here is not simply a matter of misaligned priorities. The opponents of triage maintain that advocating for triage creates political signals that broadly undermine conservation, outweighing any gains from the efficient allocation of existing resources (Vucetich et al. 2017). Buckley (2016) outlines the problem as follows:

Advocates of species triage … perceive conservation essentially as an economic optimization problem; and they act as though politics, society, and legislation are a fixed framework, and they are merely tweaking their own operations within that framework. This is incorrect. Advocating triage changes the entire framework. … The current political norm is that extinctions are highly abnormal and regrettable events, that sometimes occur despite our best efforts to avoid them. These norms are embodied in government policy and legislation, agency mandates and budgets, and in the practical politics of social license. … The triage view is that extinctions are normal events within the functioning of a human-dominated planet: a very different position. If it is seen as acceptable to conservationists that one species should become extinct, that signals that it is equally acceptable for other species to become extinct. … In purely pragmatic terms, triage is a poor gambit. (pp. 2–3)

So, an important unintended consequence of triage is that it leaves us rudderless with respect to the objectives of conservation. If we are not trying to prevent the extinction of all species, what exactly are we hoping to accomplish? To suggest that we are optimizing the use of conservation budgets is unsatisfactory because it leaves open the question of how these budgets are determined in the first place. Bereft of the solid ground provided by the objective of maintaining all species, budgeting for species conservation becomes a largely arbitrary process.

This leads us to a third problem with the triage concept, which is ambiguity about what is to be optimized (Wilson and Law 2016; Vucetich et al. 2017). In a battlefield setting, the objective is clear: to maximize the survival of injured soldiers. But this objective cannot be directly extrapolated to species because species, unlike soldiers, are not valued equally. The public places much higher value on charismatic species, and on vertebrates in general, than on simpler life forms (Small 2011). And species that cause us harm are actively targeted for destruction. A different set of priorities exists within the academic sphere, where it has been proposed that evolutionary distinctiveness and contribution to ecosystem functioning are most important (Isaac et al. 2007; Arponen 2012).

There is also a temporal dimension to be considered (Wilson et al. 2011). From a value perspective, proximate and future extinctions are not equivalent. The certainty of loss is higher for species on the precipice of extinction than it is for species not yet endangered, and the consequences of inaction are more immediate and irreversible. The triage approach provides little guidance for how such temporal value determinations should be made, and who should be making them.

The fourth shortcoming of triage involves practical limitations of the optimization process itself. In a battlefield setting, doctors receive continual feedback concerning the outcomes of their triage choices, leading to progressively better decisions. In contrast, species extinction is a long, drawn-out process that is relatively rare in species under active management. Consequently, conservation practitioners must generally rely on mechanistic models or the opinions of species experts, rather than statistical feedback, to predict extinction risk under management. The opponents of triage argue that such approaches do not provide enough confidence for making irreversible decisions involving the fate of species (Parr et al. 2009; Morrison et al. 2016).

Lastly, the flexibility needed for implementing triage at the species level does not exist under SARA. The law could certainly be amended to provide this flexibility. However, it is not at all clear that this could be accomplished without generally weakening the protection that SARA provides to species at risk.

Lessons Learned

Despite its shortcomings, the triage metaphor has been useful in drawing attention to the existence of trade-offs among conservation objectives. And while not offering a fully workable solution, it does point us in the right direction. Given the reality of capacity constraints, we must carefully consider how we allocate the resources available to us to ensure that we obtain the greatest possible conservation benefit.

The reason the triage metaphor stumbles when applied to conservation is that it skips over several important decision-making steps. In a battlefield setting, doctors can proceed straight to making triage decisions because the context, objectives, options, and likely outcomes are all well established. In conservation applications, each of these elements require attention.

A common deficiency of species-level triage proposals is that they lack a clear decision frame. Triage is advanced as an abstract concept, unmoored from the institutional apparatus that governs decision making. We don’t know who is making the decisions, the scope of their authority, or what resources are available. Many of the unworkable aspects of triage arise from this lack of institutional context. The practical value of the concept becomes evident when it is applied to specific organizations making decisions about matters they can control.

Another weakness of species-level triage proposals is inadequate decision scoping. A fundamental concern of triage opponents is that triage is working at cross-purposes with broader conservation efforts. This indicates that triage is being scoped too narrowly, without consideration of its role in the broader decision hierarchy. Individual conservation efforts should contribute to the same broad goal, and this requires coordination. Failure of coordination can result in unintended consequences.

The triage debate also illustrates the importance of clarifying objectives. Is the intent of conservation to achieve the most conservation benefit for the most species, as the proponents of triage assert? Or do some species matter more than others, as many Canadians believe? As conservation practitioners, we should recognize that the answers to these questions may lie outside of our expertise, even though they pertain specifically to conservation. We are dealing here with social choices that are determined by values, not science. The implication is that decision making about species requires some form of social input to guide the objectives. This is not something that can be taken for granted.

Finally, effective decision making requires innovative thinking with respect to management alternatives. Shifting resources from one species to another is one solution to inadequate capacity, but it is not the only option. For example, instead of pitting one species against the other, we could manage focal species in groups. Prioritization would then be focused on identifying the management actions that have the greatest collective benefit. This is the idea behind multi-species action plans, which have now been implemented in southern Saskatchewan and several national parks (ECCC 2017b; PC 2016). We will examine one of these multi-species plans in Case Study 4, paying particular attention to the resource allocation process that was used.

In summary, the basic concept of optimizing the allocation of conservation resources is sound, but the triage metaphor itself is too simple to be of much value. Moreover, the concept cannot stand on its own. Optimal resource allocation should be seen as a component of structured decision making, which provides the complete framework needed to integrate policy context, social values, and technical analysis (see Chapter 10).


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