Research shows that WLFW’s updated approach to conserving intact working landscapes produces better conservation results than focusing on a single species.
Jason Tack’s WLFW-affiliated research has informed conservation planning on many critical issues in the West. Tack, a researcher with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has studied the importance of intact landscapes for migratory species, how sage-grouse conservation has created an umbrella of benefits for migratory songbirds, and the path to win-win approaches to balancing multiple species’ habitat needs in response to woody encroachment in the sagebrush biome.
We connected with Tack to learn more about his most recent paper, “Grassland intactness outcompetes species as a more efficient surrogate in conservation design.” His research was conducted in north-central Montana – one of the most intact grasslands remaining in North America and a unique landscape that bridges both sagebrush steppe and the northern Great Plains. The resulting paper serves as a proof-of-concept for WLFW’s proactive pivot from a species-specific approach to biome-wide frameworks for conservation action.
I kind of got my start there; that’s where I did fieldwork for my master’s degree studying sage grouse. It was one of the biggest intact grasslands I’d ever seen in my life. Coming from Iowa, I was used to untilled fence rows and irrigation ditches being grassland habitat. It blew my mind to be in an area where you could stand on a hill and not see even a two-track or fence line. As it turned out, it actually is one of the biggest, intact grasslands in North America, and it’s unique because it bridges sagebrush and prairie habitat.
One of the cool things about that area is we discovered the longest ever migration by sage grouse, around 120 miles. Around that same time, researchers at the University of Calgary found pronghorn there were also migrating upwards of 250-310 miles, which were the longest observed distances for the species.
So, we knew there was a ton of ecological value in that large, intact landscape. Turns out, I’m not the only person who thinks so. The “Hi-Line” as it’s known locally in north-central Montana gets pegged internationally as a conservation priority landscape. People here have slowly been building capacity, and now federal attention and resources are flowing into this landscape to get the work done. More good things are in the works for the Hi-Line because the cultural will to pull off big, landscape scale conservation is present. Basically, everyone who’s engaged in this area, from ranchers to practitioners, are united around conservation. I hope further demonstrating the biological value through this science pours more gas into this partnership’s tank and serves as an example to other partnerships that this is all possible.
It started when we looked around and realized that we had above-average data, science, and models to inform conservation for this region. We had all these independent pieces to inform conservation design, and we were curious about the best strategy going forward for this critical landscape.
We initially thought of the past approach – the umbrella species, or focal species, approach – and asked: “Who should carry the umbrella in this landscape?” In doing that, it’s always important to have a baseline from which to compare competing ideas, commonly referred to in science as a null model. As we thought about sage grouse versus pronghorn versus grassland birds in this landscape, the null model that emerged was intact ranchlands that weren’t fragmented by cultivation, encroached by conifers, or disturbed by oil and gas development. One simple metric that would be a test ancillary to all the species.
That’s really what this research was born out of: trying to reconcile all these seemingly disparate pieces of information we had from individual species studies and putting it into a comprehensive conservation framework that would benefit the whole community in that landscape.
I won’t bore you with math, but in a nutshell we took advantage of previous researchers’ work identifying spatially the habitat needs of multiple species. We then used these previously published habitat analyses to simulate land protection strategies for each independent critter, asking what would land protection look like under a sage grouse model? Under a pronghorn model? Under a grassland bird model? We looked at each completely independent of all the other critters that we have information for. Then, and here’s the magic, we compared species against the simple null model of intact rangelands. And what do you know, intact rangelands outcompeted species as the most efficient way of conserving large, working rangelands. It was a little bit surprising because we’ve done umbrella analyses for other species in the past and found that sage grouse generally do serve as a good surrogate or “substitute” species for large landscape conservation. But here, in the most comprehensive evaluation to date, simply going after large, intact rangelands, and the ecosystem services they provide to society, is the clear and winning approach.
We’ve done right by using each of these critters independently as surrogate species, whether it be waterfowl for wetland conservation, sage grouse for sagebrush conservation, or migratory big game in terms of ranchland connectivity. There’s a pile of research that shows using sage grouse at a landscape scale for sagebrush conservation has generally been an effective approach.
But animals naturally exhibit habitat preferences. They are selective. What that means is that there are inherently going to be holes in the umbrella anytime you choose one focal species to represent the entire community. That’s predicted by surrogate species theory; we know that’s going to happen. Every critter has something that they’re particular about, different habitat needs, or selective pressures that force them to act differently. And that’s where this approach tends to break apart and why the single metric of landscape intactness outperformed any single species.
Wildlife are still going to drive a lot of what we do, particularly when we have threatened and endangered species that have particular needs, and we need to make sure that we conserve every limited piece that’s necessary to sustain their persistence. We’re going to need to protect particular migration routes like the path of the pronghorn, for example. But in terms of holistic strategy, I think it’s heartening to see that we as a community are moving towards more of these biome-wide approaches than species-centric approaches.
First, a biome is inherently holistic. We don’t have to make a choice on any particular critter, and that’s always the first food fight in the conservation community whenever we start a conservation effort—which animals are we going to use to inform that design? A biome framework gets away from all that by taking a holistic approach.
Second, they’re dead simple. Getting the science necessary to do landscape planning for species is expensive, takes a lot of time, and takes a lot of work. Thanks to historic public investments in satellites, we get remotely sensed data for free every two weeks. By marrying that up with some of the resources we have in cloud computing now, we can develop these things cheaply and efficiently. You can make them dynamic so they’re changing every year. The irony is that now it’s a heck of a lot more efficient to watch our landscapes change over time. For individual species, it’s less simple.
And then the last one is, it’s replicable. This is something that you can take out of our system and drop anywhere. It’s important to test assumptions like we did here in this paper, but it’s something that you can be up and running with in terms of a conservation design wherever you are in the world rather quickly because this information is available right now.
What I’ve seen in Working Lands for Wildlife is the move from this species-specific approach like the Sage Grouse Initiative, to biome-wide frameworks, and this is a good proof of concept for that shift.
This study, to me, is keying in on a root question of the biome approach: are we going to be missing something? In other words, what are we losing with this approach where we focus on the biome, where you focus on intact rangelands, as a currency rather than a species? I say at the landscape scale, we’re not losing anything. We can say confidently now that we’re not leaving critters behind as we move to a framework that’s associated with biomes rather than species.
This is also a proof of concept for the “Defend the Core” strategy at a landscape scale. The Hi-Line is one of the most intact sagebrush steppe grasslands in North America, and that makes it the most efficient place to focus our limited conservation resources. With this study showing that conserving rangelands conserves everything that depends on those lands, we know we’ll have the greatest chance of success there. To me, this really is more science to justify Defending the Core.
It’s empowering because it gives you, right off the bat, a common currency to talk with every stakeholder. Wildlife biodiversity is, at the end of the day, just one ecosystem service that we care about. When we can step up from species and talk about rangelands in general, we’re getting a lot more common language.
Every ecosystem resource that we can talk about is now under this umbrella of intact rangelands, rather than just picking out one facet of it. So, it brings in a broader community and with that comes more support and durability. We get more implementation folks on board, like the Rancher Stewardship Alliance and other private landowner groups who have the boots on the ground to actually do this stuff. Basically, it mobilizes all the capacity and resources out there to do the conservation that’s necessary to save these biomes.
What I’ve taken away from this research, and I hope others feel as well, is that we can really lead with these biome-wide strategies thatWLFW is adopting. We can lean into these things safely, knowing that we’re not giving up on species by focusing on intact biomes. I think that what we’ll see is our umbrella will only get bigger, our opportunity to do conservation will only grow, and our stakeholder group is just going to get bigger.
These large contiguous rangelands, they’re our most limited conservation assets. And once they’re gone, they’re gone. From a biome perspective, there are just so many unique things that large, intact landscapes provide and there are certain critters that just don’t exist without a really big landscape in which to thrive.
We need an approach where we can perpetuate these large, intact landscapes so our kids have a fighting chance of appreciating them. It’s critical. It’s urgent. And I think we have the strategy to do it.
The last book I read was How to Tell Stories to Children. I’ve got a six-year-old kid and he likes hearing stories and it’s a really good book on how kids learn from stories, sort of how stories are important. We scientists don’t always necessarily appreciate the storytelling aspect and the power it has, and you can see it in the six-year-old, so it’s helped me get better at telling stories.
Written for Working Lands for Wildlife by Nell Smith.