Ecological Tradeoffs

By Keith Kloor | March 1, 2011 7:35 am

Via Andy Revkin at Dot Earth, I see that Peter Gleick, living in an imaginary world where tradeoffs never occur, is outraged that some people in California are daring to consider that not all endangered species, because of their dire status, can be saved: 

In a desperate attempt to make it easier to solve California’s complex and contentious water problems, a dangerous new idea has recently been floated — intentionally letting some species go extinct rather than take the difficult steps needed to save them and their ecosystems. This idea should be quashed, smothered, strangled, and quickly tossed in the dumpster of failed ideas.

The first hint of this appeared earlier in February in the 52-page study released by the Delta Stewardship Council. That report argued that it was possible that some species of fish might be so devastated already and their ecosystems so ruined that they were unlikely to survive even with significant efforts to save them.

Unfortunately, in the real world, government biologists and land and water managers have to grapple with the competing needs of society and species. It’s a complex jigsaw that isn’t pretty or fair, as anyone familiar with the ongoing (and flawed) efforts to restore the Florida Everglades is aware.

This doesn’t mean I’m against herculean, against-all-odds initiatives to save individual species. Out West, one such noble effort has been underway for decades, terrifically chronicled by Hillary Rosner in her recent award-winning story.

Still, let’s not kid ourselves. There are winnners and losers in our constructed landscapes.  As I discussed here in 2009,  the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) has (unofficially) acknowledged, in an internal, draft-stage planning document (my emphasis):

that some populations and species will be lost, and some will only survive in the wild through our direct and continuous intervention.  We will be especially challenged to conserve species and habitats that are particularly vulnerable to climate-driven changes, but we will dedicate our best efforts and expertise to the task, recognizing that we cannot save everything. We will need to make choices, and we will need to apply ourselves where we can make the greatest difference.

Is there a better way forward than than this cold-eyed, calculating approach? Probably not, at least with respect to determinations of single species made in a real-world framework of limited resources. But as Revkin notes in another post, we’re increasingly faced with individual extinctions because

we have an Endangered Species Act intended to save species on the brink, but not a Thriving Ecosystems Act that tries to monitor and sustain diverse communities of species before bad things happen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: ecology, endangered species
  • kdk33

    Species are challenged by changing climate.  Ever was it thus.

  • harrywr2

    <i>I see that Peter Gleick, living in an imaginary world where tradeoffs never occur</i>

    In Mr Gleick’s essay he lists the possibility of Coho salmon going extinct.
    Coho salmon are thriving in the Pacific Northwest. Depending on year there are catch limits, as with most any fish. Coho Salmon was selling in Seattle Fish markets last fall for $5.99/lb.


  • Gaythia

    I don’t see this as so much of an issue of “tradeoffs” as it is a need (ideally at least) to replace a piecemeal approach with one of broader ecological scope.

    One of the problems with the Endangered Species Act is that it tends to focus preservation efforts on small isolated islands of habitat.  Isolated species are obviously very vulnerable.  A case in point in the California Delta region with which I happen to be familiar, is the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge.

    This was created to provide protection for three endangered species: Lange’s Metalmark butterfly, Antioch Dunes evening primrose and Contra Costa wallflower.

    Its address is 501 Fulton Shipyard Rd, which pretty much says it all.

    It is generally closed to the public, but if you peer down with the aid of a satellite map, you can see that this is a very small patch of used to be sand dunes in a largely industrialized area of the San Joaquin River.  The refuge is to the east of the road. Through the years, the sand in this area was mainly viewed as a handy building material.  Despite good intentions, I do not believe that this sort of preservation will accomplish much long term.  Especially in the face of climate change.
    We need a more comprehensive approach.

  • Dean

    If the IPCC BAU scenario plays out, there probably won’t be almost any salmon in the PNW by 2100 as there won’t be enough cold water in the summer for them to spawn. It will probably have more to do with low summer flows that warm up easily than with actual summer temps. In other words, as we get less snow and more rain, rivers flow higher in late winter and lower in summer. Shallower water warms more easily in summer heat.

    They are taking out a small and ancient local dam (produces minimal electricity) next year. Should allow salmon to return to my local river. But for how long?

  • harrywr2

    Dean Says:
    March 1st, 2011 at 1:22 pm If the IPCC BAU scenario plays out.

    Here is a world energy organization 2004 study
    Productivity per man and year rose between 5 and 10 % in the 1980s and by between 10 and 15 % in the 1990s 34. This growth was not only due to increased labour productivity, but also to the closing of uneconomic or small (and often illegal) mines, the liberalisation and restructuring of coal industries, the transfer of know-how and
    technology to newcomers and the expansion of opencast mining versus underground mining. Productivity growth is expected to continue.
    In the last 10 years, the number of tons per man hour for coal mines East of the US Mississippi went from more then 4 tons to less then 3 tons per hour.
    The fundamental basis of ‘Business as Usual’, that coal mining productivity would continue to improve has proven to be FALSE.
    The facts that were available at the time pointed to them being true…but what has actually happened isn’t what was predicted.
    The only place coal is competitive with nuclear by a significant margin is the US Midwest and Rocky Mountain States.
    The rest of the world is lined up at the doors of the worlds nuclear power plant vendors with their checkbooks open asking ‘when can you deliver it?’


  • Dean

    “The rest of the world is lined up at the doors of the worlds nuclear power plant vendors with their checkbooks open asking “˜when can you deliver it?'”

    And answer usually seems to be a few years late and a few billion dollars over budget. Including in countries with no anti-nuclear political movement. That isn’t stopping them from asking, but fast developing countries are basically building every kind of energy generation that they can with no real favorites.

    Nor do I see how this really impacts my post on salmon. I don’t think that the efficiency of coal plants fundamentally affects this aspect of the IPCC scenarios. I don’t see any sign that nuclear will catch on at a scale or speed to prevent this scenario.

  • Jack Hughes

    Have any of the IPCC predictions ever happened? Ever?

    Here’s my favourite – from the “summary for policymakers”:

    “High probability of …alterations to disturbance regimes of forests due to fires and pests…”

    I’ve no idea what it means or how you would know if it had happened or not. It’s eco-babble.

    Do they predict more fires? Bigger fires? Smaller fires? Bigger pests? More pests?

    It could cover almost anything from a fireball to the appearance of  Man-Bear-Pig.


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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.


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