Science Highlights: Conservation and Resource Management

NCEAS collaborative working groups bring leading academic scientists together with conservation practitioners and resource managers to address a range of challenging questions, including how to protect endangered species, conserve terrestrial and marine biodiversity, and manage scarce resources in the face of growing uncertainty. By synthesizing ecological information with economic, social, and even geopolitical considerations, NCEAS has fostered interdisciplinary problem-solving, from the application of electrical circuits to landscape connectivity to a consideration of the return on investment from conservation approaches.

Roughly a quarter of NCEAS projects include important conservation considerations. Below is a sampling of some of NCEAS’ most influential and highly cited research in conservation and resource management, many of which have informed policy decisions.

Click to expand the accordions below and learn about some of the NCEAS research focused on conservation and resource management.

Protecting Threatened Species

NCEAS research provides a comprehensive view of the conservation of threatened species, from assessing population vulnerability to protecting vital habitat, offering critical insight into the outcomes of policies for protecting endangered species.


Scientists have used a range of methods to evaluate species’ conservation status, often with very different results. Although threatened species lists can provide a simplified measure of extinction risk for policy purposes, in this widely cited paper, Possingham et al. (2002) suggested such lists may be unsuitable for certain decision-making processes like determining resource allocation and siting reserves. They argued that threatened species lists should be only one piece of a more comprehensive process when assessing the state of the environment and setting priorities for conserving biodiversity.


A key component of the Endangered Species Act is the development of recovery plans for all listed species by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service. NCEAS researchers Boersma et al. (2001) led a team of scientists and graduate students in the first analytical study to assess the effectiveness of these plans and their implementation. Their findings include the importance of nonfederal participation in plan development, suggest that clear links to species biology improve prospects for species recovery, and strongly recommended better monitoring of management outcomes.


The Endangered Species Act allows private landowners to “take” listed species, provided they develop Habitat Conservation Plans. The rapid proliferation of these plans in recent decades has raised concerns that they are not scientifically sound. Kareiva et al. (1999) led a nationwide group in the first quantitative assessment of existing plans, finding that many did not adequately incorporate scientific standards. Their work resulted in a response from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which said it disagreed with the report but would incorporate its recommendations.

Conservation Planning

NCEAS research addresses critical questions about how to develop successful management strategies, from reserves to biodiversity conservation plans, even as the ecosystems being studied face increasing stress from climate change and invasive species.


NCEAS scientists have made significant contributions to the science of reserve design. A key component of this science is overcoming the difficulty of incomplete data when siting reserves. To address this gap, conservation planners often use flagship species (charismatic species that attract public interest) or umbrella species (species that require large areas of habitat that simultaneously support many other species) in guiding recommendations. Andelman and Fagan (1999) challenged this approach, finding that none of these surrogate schemes did a significantly better job of protecting biodiversity than would result from targeting a random selection of species.


At the 1992 IUCN World Parks Congress, international conservation leaders proposed a target of 10% global protected area coverage. A decade later, they announced that this target had been surpassed. In a widely cited paper published in Nature, however, Rodrigues et al. (2004) identified the limitations behind setting “one size fits all” targets for protected areas, arguing that little work had been done to analyze whether the global protected area network fulfilled its goal of protecting biodiversity. Their synthesis of five global datasets on species distribution identified major gaps in the network’s coverage of biodiversity, concluding that while uniform conservation targets are politically expedient, they may be inadequate to meet conservation goals.


Conservation goals often focus on large spatial scales, but a widely cited study by Groves et al. (2002) highlighted the need for a more tailored regional approach. With support from The Nature Conservancy, the authors developed a seven-step framework for developing regional conservation plans. This conservation planning framework, also adapted into a book, Drafting a Conservation Blueprint: A Practitioner’s Guide to Planning for Biodiversity, continues to be a critical resource in conservation planning.


Climate change can alter habitat availability, species distributions, and ecosystem processes, often in disproportionate and unpredictable ways. An NCEAS study by Lawler et al. (2010) explored methods to better predict these impacts and identify management strategies in the face of uncertainty. Using case studies in the Central Valley of California, the Klamath River headwaters, and North Carolina’s Alligator River, the authors discovered that a flexible adaptive management approach is necessary when dealing with uncertain climate impacts. They also identified certain management strategies, such as species translocation, which are dependent on specific climate scenarios, while other strategies are more likely to be effective across a range of future climate possibilities.


Invasive species can place significant stress on native populations. Prior to work by Parker et al. (1999), however, few efforts had been made to define these impacts or connect them to ecological theory, making it difficult to pinpoint the most harmful invaders. These scientists argued that the impact of an invasive species depends on its range, abundance, and the per-biomass effect of the invasion, while acknowledging spatial variation and possible nonlinearities. New modeling approaches are suggested for evaluating and predicting invasive species impacts.


Making the connection between species populations and the habitats they rely on is critical to conservation, but these connections can be difficult to understand and restore in complex landscapes. In an effort to shed light on this area, McRae et al. (2008) explored an innovative application of electrical circuit theory to understanding ecological connectivity. Their work related resistance, voltage, and current to ecological processes like individual movement and gene flow. Applying circuit models to management questions can inform identification of important habitats and corridors.


Managers face tremendous uncertainty when making decisions about conservation strategies. New methods developed at NCEAS for considering uncertainty, risk, and understanding economic returns can improve the management decision-making process.


Resources for conservation are scarce. With a focus on maximizing the returns of conservation initiatives, Murdoch et al. (2007) demonstrated how a return-on-investment approach borrowed from the business world can help prioritize conservation options. Using two examples—land purchasing of US temperate forest habitat and resource allocation between conservation actions in Mediterranean habitats—these authors found that costs can vary by orders of magnitude between different management options. They also found a poor correlation between costs and biodiversity outcomes, indicating the potential for dramatically reducing conservation costs by applying a return on investment approach.


When making decisions about species protection, there is often a tradeoff between the best possible outcome and increased uncertainty. NCEAS scientists Regan et al. (2005) used a case study on the Sumatran rhino to evaluate how much uncertainty conservation scientists and managers can tolerate before pursuing a different conservation option. The study concludes that accounting for uncertainty can shift decisions regarding the best management plan for some species, highlighting the importance of a full uncertainty assessment in conservation management decisions.

Marine Conservation

To inform science-based management of marine resources, many NCEAS studies have evaluated strategies such as ecosystem-based management, marine spatial planning, and marine protected areas for optimizing both effective conservation and benefits for human populations. This research approach goes beyond the ecological impacts of ocean management to consider the breadth of economic, social, and political implications.


Marine resource management has recently shifted to focus on ecosystems as a whole, rather than managing individual species. In collaboration with the Packard Foundation, NCEAS researchers developed a holistic perspective of the science behind ecosystem-based management, both in the United States and in tropical ecosystems. Crowder et al. (2006) noted that in the United States, at least 20 federal agencies are responsible for implementing over 140 ocean-related statutes, creating management conflicts. They argued that ocean zoning will correct failures in ocean governance and allow ecosystems to be managed comprehensively.

NCEAS scientists also developed a collection of research reports on ecosystem-based management in tropical environments, published in the Coastal Management Special Issue: Tropical Marine Ecosystem-Based Management Feasibility (2009). Focusing on the Philippines, Hawaii, and the Benguela Current, these studies responded to critical questions about how to integrate community governance and ecosystem-based management.


Leveraging the latest marine spatial planning (MSP) tools, scientists at NCEAS have been leaders in developing the theory of marine protected areas (MPAs). Over 50 NCEAS publications have used science to inform the design and implementation of MPAs, in order to optimize their effectiveness for conservation and fisheries management. NCEAS scientists were at the forefront of two important collections of cutting edge marine reserve research: the Ecological Applications Supplement: The Science of Marine Reserves (2003) and the PNAS Marine Reserves Special Feature (2010). All of the publications in the Ecological Applications Supplement and a quarter of the studies featured by PNAS were NCEAS products that integrated marine spatial planning, ecosystem-based management, and MPAs science to provide comprehensive analysis and recommendations.

In one project, Halpern and colleagues were some of the first researchers to go beyond studying marine reserves on an individual basis to explore global trends in how marine life responds to reserve protection. Halpern and Warner (2002) synthesized data from 80 marine reserves and concluded that, overall, there was higher species density, biomass, size, and biodiversity of organisms in marine reserves compared to unprotected areas. They found that marine life responded quickly (1-3 years) to reserve protection and that positive changes last through time.


In a highly-cited Science paper, Worm et al. (2009) found that 63% of assessed fish stocks worldwide still require rebuilding and recommended merging diverse management approaches, from catch limits to closed areas. They also acknowledged that management is particularly complicated for small-scale fisheries in poorer regions, and that scientifically assessed stocks represent only a small fraction of global fisheries. This work was presented to Congressional staff and at congressional hearings on the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The SNAP Data-Limited Fisheries Working Group is developing new approaches for management of unassessed stocks and small-scale fisheries.


A 2008 study published in Science synthesized 17 datasets to produce a global map of the cumulative human impacts in the ocean. In this high-profile paper, Halpern and colleagues found that while there are no areas of the ocean unaffected by human influence, large areas of relatively little human impact do remain, particularly near the poles. Additionally, over a third of the world’s oceans (41%) are highly impacted by anthropogenic drivers of change like fishing and pollution. This spatial representation of anthropogenic impacts informs conservation and management efforts, spatial planning, education, and basic research. Find out more about how this map was created and download the data here.

Available Data in the KNB Repository

In support of open science, NCEAS encourages data publication in online repositories. Below are a few examples of freely available NCEAS datasets pertinent to conservation and resource management research: