Much has changed in the world since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed 50 years ago in December 1973.
Two Ohio State University researchers were among a group of experts invited by the journal Science to discuss how ESA has evolved and what its future may hold.
Berger-Wolf askeddirector of Ohio State’s faculty Institute for Translational Data Analysisleads a group that writes about “Sustainable, reliable partnership between man and technology”. Amy Andoprofessor and head of the university Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economicswrote on “Using Economics for Effective Deployment.”
Berger-Wolf and her colleagues write, “We are in the midst of a mass extinction without even knowing what we are losing and how fast.” But technology can help address it.
For example, they note the value of tools like camera traps that survey animal species and smartphone apps that allow citizen scientists to count insects, identify bird songs, and report plant observations.
The new technology allowed scientists to observe animal and plant populations at scale for the first time, Berger-Wolf said. who is also a professor of computer science and engineering, evolution, ecology and biology of the organismand electrical and computer engineering. One challenge is to find new ways to extract all the information from these new data sources.
“But even with all this data, we’re still only observing a tiny fraction of the world’s biodiversity,” she said. “Without this information, we don’t know what we have, how different species are doing and whether our policies to protect endangered species are working.”
Most important, Berger-Wolf said, is the need to ensure that people stay in the process. Technology must connect data, connect different regions of the world, connect people to nature and connect people to people.
“We don’t want to break the connection between people and nature, we want to strengthen it,” she said.
“We cannot rely on technology to save the world’s biodiversity. It needs to be an intentional partnership between people, technology and AI.”
The economy should be another partner in the fight to save endangered species, Ando said.
“There is this tendency to think that protecting endangered species is a matter of biology and ecology,” Ando said. “But different tools in the economy are very helpful in making sure that the work we do to implement the Endangered Species Act is successful. This is not always obvious to people.
For example, bioeconomics research is a multidisciplinary effort between economists and biologists to work together to see how human behavior interacts with ecological processes and systems.
“We have to consider feedback effects. People take action and that changes the ecosystem and that changes what people do,” she said. “We need to capture these feedback effects.”
The result could be new ways to protect endangered species, such as “pop-up” habitat modification. For example, ranchers may temporarily remove fences while elk migrate to allow them to roam freely. Rice fields can be temporarily flooded during shorebird migration to provide them with a place to rest and feed on their journeys.
We can “rely on economics to optimize the timing, location, and scope of temporary actions to maximize their net benefits to society,” Ando writes in Science.
Another way economics can help is to develop policies that protect species before they become so endangered that they need ESA protection.
A common problem is that multiple landowners will need to work together to protect the habitats of endangered species. But often, if some landowners take action to protect a species, other landowners will think they don’t need to.
“Economists are working to figure out how we can coordinate landowners where we don’t have to enforce draconian land use regulations, but still protect habitat,” Ando said.
“This is a very promising tactic that can protect species and also reduce the cost to humans of doing so.”