Monday, March 12, 2007

On Biological "Hotspots"

Macaws at a clay lick in Manu Reserve, Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Jennifer Miller

A focus of many conservation organizations over the past decade has been on "biological hotspots"--those areas that have the highest number of species. A relatively few areas of the Earth contain the vast majority of its species.

Certainly these places are special, but should they be the sole focus of biodiversity conservation?

Peter Kareiva, The Nature Conservancy's chief scientist, argues that the answer to this question should be "no" in a interview.

In the interview, Kareiva makes the point that some species have more profound impacts on ecosystems than others, such as grizzly bears. Some habitats hold relatively few species--such as northern forests--but still provide great benefits to people in the form of erosion control, water quality and outdoor recreation.

He also believes that humans should not be denied access to the natural world, whether they live near a hotspot or in an area that contains fewer species.

The argument makes sense. Certainly no one is denying the importance of those areas with huge numbers of species, such as the Peruvian Amazon (pictured above), where I visited in 2005. Manu National Park in the Amazon has more bird species, for instance, than the entire United States. And the number of birds pales beside the amazing variety and numbers of insects, to say nothing of the exuberant plant growth in every nook and cranny. The sights, sounds and smells of the Amazon remind one that life is everywhere.

Compared to the Amazon, Idaho's own biological diversity seems, admittedly, puny. But as Kareiva argues, species counts never give the whole picture. Idaho still has some of the best populations of large mammals--moose, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, caribou, pronghorn, grizzly bear, mountain lion, wolf and more. The sagebrush country offers some of the best shrublands on the continent, with sage grouse, burrowing owls, golden eagles, badgers, ermines and many more.

The Nature Conservancy's mission focuses on protecting the great variety of native plants and animals around the world, from the species-rich areas like the Amazon to the sagebrush country of Idaho. Only by protecting the full range of these habitats can the Conservancy achieve its mission.

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