A Pragmatic Approach to Extinction

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The Arizona State University Center for Biodiversity Outcomes was established to come up with pragmatic solutions to the extinction of species, working from the premise that some species won’t be able to be saved. Founding director Leah Gerber will tell us more about the mission of the center.

TED SIMONS: ASU's center for biodiversity outcomes was established to find and research pragmatic solutions to the extinction of species. Founding director Leah Gerber joins us now to talk more about all this. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. This is very interesting. Again, the center for biodiversity outcomes, did I get that right?

LEAH GERBER: Indeed. Thanks for having me.


LEAH GERBER: Center for biodiversity outcomes we launched about a year ago just celebrating our one-year anniversary. The idea of the center is to bring together scholarship from across campus at ASU to cultivate novel solutions and innovation in the realm of biodiversity and conservation. And then secondly to bring that scholarship to decision makers and natural resource managers.

TED SIMONS: So, basically I know we talk about a pragmatic approach to extinction. Let's get a definition there. Extinction is a volatile, emotional kind of thing. How can you be pragmatic about it?

LEAH GERBER: Indeed, it is emotional and volatile. The data suggests that we actually are currently experiencing the sixth mass extinction on earth. And that is largely due to human impacts. The rates of extinction are unprecedented. For example, about 40% of amphibians are endangered. 25% of mammals, and there is a growing list of these endangered species and the question is, what do we want our world to look like? Which species do we want to prioritize? What are their criteria that we should use?

TED SIMONS: Indeed -- and judging from what I read about the program, the working premise is you can't save everything. That's tough stuff there.

LEAH GERBER: Indeed. Indeed. So, in fact, one of the arguments that I make in this case is that by not deciding or not being deliberate about what type of biodiversity we want, we're implicitly making decisions. What I'm arguing for is a sort of transparent framework to think about these choices. Do we want to make decisions based on functional role in the ecosystem or level of charisma or what's most cost effective? There are many sets of criteria that we could use. And the agencies responsible for implementing recovery for many listed species, for example, in the U.S., the U.S. fish and wildlife service, as well as the national marine fishery service are responsible for these listing decisions and protected measures, but with federal budget cuts and an increasing number of species on the list they are severely understaffed, so it's like drinking out of a firehose. So the question is, what strategy can they take to make these decisions in an efficient and transparent way.

TED SIMONS: and I would imagine the quicker the choice the quicker the action you actually save more as opposed to sitting around not sure what to do.

LEAH GERBER: That's a very interesting point and in the field of ecology and conversation science we call - there's something known as the small population paradigm versus the large population paradigm and that is we tend to manage for crises, when something is on the brink of extinction, we funnel resources towards that. We might achieve better outcomes by looking ahead and trying to take protective measures a bit before we're facing that crisis.

TED SIMONS: And I notice as well one of the keys is educating a decision-makers about this. Decision-makers in government, decision-makers in business, stakeholders, basically, correct?

LEAH GERBER: Indeed. Indeed. In fact, that's largely the motivation for launching this new center at ASU. I have been at ASU for 14 years. In the standard model, even though we are an amazing new American university within academia, we tend to say in our silos and get very specific in our areas of expertise. And so my motivation was to think what innovative solutions can we sort of support and cultivate through new ways of thinking about this question.


LEAH GERBER: Of facing extinction. And then, second, wow, we have this amazing capacity within the campus, within our expertise that could actually be applied in the settings with non-governmental organizations, like the nature conservancy often having to make decisions quickly, huge-scale decisions about nature's capital. Federal agencies, international government organizations and even corporations.

TED SIMONS: And because this involves a university here, getting students out to conduct methodology, these sorts of things?

LEAH GERBER: Yes, that is another exciting dimension of our center and that is that part of the aspiration is to train future generations in doing this in a way that it works. And that involves not just sitting in the lab and learning taxonomy, but it also involves being able to communicate to stakeholders and being able to reach a diverse realm of constituents in what is nature, what is biodiversity. A lot of people don't even know.

TED SIMONS: Back to the pragmatic aspect of having to make choices. When I hear about tigers, 98% of tigers are gone. When I hear there are four northern white rhinos left in the world, I want them saved. I mean, are -- but is there -- is there a formula that says maybe it is better to save the fly catcher than the tiger?

LEAH GERBER: I think it is very -- as humans, I think I have the same reaction. I -- I don't think I could and probably most decision-makers I don't think would be explicit and say let's let it go. First of all, legally we're required by the Endangered Species Act to prevent extinction. I think we need to think more deliberately in those cases can any amount of money or any conservation action recover it? Or do we think more strategically and possibly shift the funding that is going towards those lost causes towards those species for which we can actually have an impact. I think that the estimate, you look at the estimated costs for implementing recovery actions for all listed species in the U.S., it is approximately $2 billion per year. We're spending only about half of that. So, assuming that they need these actions to recover, we might think about shifting that to better achieve our goals.

TED SIMONS: There is plenty to think about and it sounds like a lot of thinking is going on over there at the campus. Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us. We appreciate it.

LEAH GERBER: Thank you very much. Pleasure.

Leah Gerber : Founding director The Arizona State University Center for Biodiversity Outcomes

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