Climate change, habitat degradation and fragmentation, declines in water quality and quantity, the spread of invasive species, and ocean acidification are among the many stressors putting unparalleled pressures on the nation’s ecosystems. There has never been a more critical time for the conservation community to work together to develop landscape-level conservation strategies. Land managers are more frequently facing the difficult task of identifying lands that can be saved by timely, concerted action; those that will likely recover on their own; and those that no amount of effort will save. In these situations, managers must often answer questions, such as, should we attempt to maintain freshwater wetlands in the face of salt-water intrusion, or would the wildlife refuge’s limited resources be better spent enhancing the ecological resilience of upland habitats to climate change? Such trade-offs in conservation are nothing new, of course, but are likely to become ever more urgent in the coming years. The need for collaborative, scientifically based and proactive conservation planning and design has long been seen as essential. During the early implementation phase of Fulfilling the Promise, several teams assessed how wildlife refuges should plan for wildlife, habitat and biodiversity goals at multiple spatial scales. Their important “goals report” made clear that such an endeavor would have implications throughout the landscape. Nearly a decade ago, the teams concluded that it made little sense for the Refuge System to undertake such an effort on its own. Several of the report’s authors joined with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service colleagues to form a National Ecological Assessment Team, which examined the subject more broadly. Their work resulted in the June 2006 report, “Strategic Habitat Conservation,” which serves as the scientific blueprint and methodology for the Service’s current conservation efforts.
Strategic Habitat Conservation is a science-based framework for making management decisions about where and how to deliver conservation effectively to achieve specific biological outcomes. It is a feedback loop that starts with assumption-based research that feeds biological planning and then moves into conservation design; conservation delivery; inventory and monitoring; and back again to inform biological planning. The principles of Strategic Habitat Conservation are being used in implementing the Service’s climate change strategy, Rising to the Urgent Challenge: Strategic Plan for Responding to Accelerating Climate Change. This plan establishes a basic framework within which the Service will work as part of a larger conservation community to help ensure the sustainability of fish, wildlife, plants and habitats in the face of accelerating climate change. A key component of the plan is development of Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, a national network of 21 self-directed partnerships. They are to provide shared science capacity to inform resource management actions addressing climate change and other stressors within and across landscapes.
The Strategic Habitat Conservation report recognized that the Service has considerable capacity for conservation delivery. It focused primarily on the undeveloped capacity for biological planning, conservation design and targeted research and monitoring. But the report also recognized that “delivery of conservation actions” would be the subject of ample future discussion, including the changing role of the Service in collaborative conservation.
The discussion now turns to how the Service can continue to use the National Wildlife Refuge System – and its impressive array of conservation tools – to deliver conservation on the ground, and how, in light of numerous changes on the landscape, that delivery will differ from the past.
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