09/23/2014 05:32 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

The Future of Conservation and the Tragedy of Triage

Co-authored by John A. Vucetich, Professor of Ecology

A great deal of conservation is about the restoration of endangered species and the prevention of species endangerment. As such, society's understanding of what it means to be an endangered species is tremendously important. According to the U.S. Endangered Species Act, 1973 (ESA), an endangered species is one "at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." In July 2014 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) instituted a new policy that effectively changes the meaning of that definition and severely diminishes a basic aspiration of conservation for the United States. Because the ESA is a flagship of conservation legislation, one can expect this new meaning to influence the direction of conservation far beyond the formal purview of the ESA.

Last month in a New York Times op-ed entitled, "Conservation, or curation?", we explained how the plain language reading of the law defines an endangered species as, roughly, one whose geographic range has been significantly diminished by human hubris. The new policy says a species is endangered only if it is at outright risk of extinction. The new policy trades the ESA's original aspiration for a new one. The original aspiration, reflected in part by the Findings section of the ESA, had been founded on a commitment to ecosystem health and righting past wrongs committed against species. The new, diminished aspiration is to merely preserve the fewest necessary individuals of a species, like curating rare pieces in a museum.

That criticism did not go unnoticed. Last week the director of the FWS (Dan Ashe) and the assistant administrator of NOAA Fisheries (Eileen Sobeck) responded to the editor of The New York Times in a letter entitled, "Using scarce resources to save endangered species." Their defense of the policy raises deeper concerns about the course they are steering for conservation in the United States. They indicate that a plain language reading of the legal definition of endangerment would have negative consequences for conservation. In particular they indicate that resources are too scarce to recover all species and the principal intent and effect of the new policy is to provide flexibility to focus resources on species at greatest risk or species that would benefit most.

That focusing of resources is known as conservation triage. The principle affect of the new policy is not, however, triage. An analogy illustrates. Imagine being seriously injured on a battlefield and medical attention is withheld because resources are scarce and your compatriot is more seriously injured or would benefit more from attention. You are not declared healthy and sent on your way to celebrate your recovery or the withholding of attention. No. Your condition is acknowledged and the inability to treat is considered a tragedy.

The appropriate response to a tragedy is not a declaration of accomplishment or occasion for celebration. By analogy, the appropriate response to failing to recover a species (because resources are scarce) is not to redefine "recovery" and then celebrate the disguised tragedy. To do so is as bizarre as believing, those are not wounds that you are suffering, that is just scarce resources. If scarce financial resources genuinely preclude the recovery of a species that is a tragedy - the tragedy of triage. And so it is.

The triage analogy requires two conditions. First, it requires that resources are genuinely scarce. That condition certainly applies within the FWS and NOAA Fisheries, but not across the federal government at large. The analogy's second condition is genuinely caring about our fellow compatriots (species). Having the resources, as we do, and not allocating them to recover species suggests that we do not care. Polices are a reflection of an agency. An agency can either reflect citizens' values or lead us to a different set of values. The new policy is disturbing for one or several of these reasons: It leads us to care less for nature. It reflects society's existing disregard for nature. It dishonors the care many or most citizens harbor for nature. The future of conservation, as it unfolds, will tell us which of these is the case.

The FWS and NOAA Fisheries already have mechanisms allowing flexibility to focus scarce resources. If those mechanisms are inadequate, then appropriate policies should be developed. However, conservation professionals have an uneasy relationship with conservation triage because it is difficult to administer wisely and can easily be a subterfuge, as seems to be the case here.