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How to save more species before they're gone forever

October 7, 2021

ASU conservation scientist calls for more funding of the Endangered Species Act to combat escalating biodiversity crisis

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a delisting of 23 species that are believed to be extinct in the United States, joining about 900 species that have been documented as extinct around the world.

Even though the Fish and Wildlife Service produces this list annually, the numbers are becoming accelerated, according to Leah Gerber, a professor of conservation science in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences.

Climate change, exploitation of wildlife and pollution are among many of the reasons why animals and plants are often declared extinct.

“It’s unequivocal that we are using and overexploiting nature faster that it can recover,” said Gerber, who is also the founding director of the Center for Biodiversity Outcomes (CBO) at ASU. “Biodiversity is the foundation for our economy and well-being, yet it is declining at unprecedented rates.”

Gerber’s research and teaching work to advance the integration of science in decision processes to sustain Earth’s biodiversity in a time of rapid biophysical, institutional and cultural change. Gerber was recently a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Global Assessment, which provided the most comprehensive evaluation of the status of biodiversity and nature’s contribution to people in the U.S. and globally. This report concluded that in coming years, more than a million species will be threatened with extinction.

Following Gerber’s appearance on Monday’s NPR’s 1A and quote in the New York Times, ASU News spoke to Gerber about the Fish and Wildlife Service's extinction list, and how the current and future administrations need to address what she calls an emerging “biodiversity crisis.”

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Woman with long brown hair and smiling

Leah Gerber

Question: This year’s Fish and Wildlife Service delisting of 23 species seems especially jarring because it includes the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was once known as the largest woodpecker in the United States. The list also includes the yellow-breasted Backman’s warbler and several Southeastern freshwater mussels. How does this impact you both as a scientist and a human?

Answer: These 23 species join the list of 11 species previously delisted due to extinction and hundreds of other species scientists estimate have been lost in the last 200 years. As a conservation scientist, I am committed to engaging the public in understanding ways that our actions have a direct impact on the biodiversity outcomes that we have seen and will continue to see in the future.

Extinction is permanent — and by losing woodpeckers, we have lost a natural form of pest control, and in losing mussels we have lost an important food source. All species contribute to human well-being, whether directly or indirectly. The loss of our natural heritage and planet’s biodiversity cannot be recovered. The impact is irreversible, and policy action is urgently needed to address the biodiversity crisis. 

Q: I thought the Endangered Species Act of 1973 was designed for this sort of thing. Is the government not doing a good enough job regarding enforcement, or do they not have enough resources available to them — and how do we fix that?

A: Global biodiversity loss is occurring at an unprecedented rate, and halting this loss will require a significant increase in the level of conservation investment. Yet, funds for conservation are limited and priorities for investment must be set. Effective allocation to date has been hampered by the limited evidence linking investments and measurable biodiversity outcomes. In my 2016 PNAS paper, I have discovered that less than 25% of the $1.21 billion given per year with the purpose of implementing recovery plans is actually allocated to these recovery plans.

In the face of sparse resources, a structured, logical and transparent approach to allocating limited resources to recovery programs provides a way to maximize recovery of species. Choosing full recovery for some species does not entail deliberate extinction for others. The science of structured decision making, together with the development of decision-support tools — e.g., systematic conservation planning — provides approaches that require decision makers to clearly articulate objectives and constraints, and more transparently evaluate alternative allocation strategies to find the strategy that best meets multiple objectives.

The recent delisting announcement highlights the need to support federal agencies to employ such approaches and to fund the ESA to conserve species before declines become irreversible. The ESA is a necessary "crisis management" tool to save species when all else has failed. Without it, many more species would have been extinct, and biodiversity would be spiraling at a much more dramatic rate than it is now.

This past year, President Biden requested a more than $60 million increase for endangered species conservation, which is amazing because it is the largest increase request for this program in all of history. Alas, the House Appropriations Committee undercut the president’s budget request by $17 million, but $43 million is a good and essential start to help the cause. The ESA is not broken; it's starving for resources!

Q: What is contributing to the cause or causes of animal extinction?

A: Primary threats to biodiversity include climate change, habitat loss and modification, overexploitation of wildlife, invasive species and pollution. Today, about a million species are at risk of extinction globally. The majority of land and seas have been significantly modified by human activity; populations of wild species continue to decline; and ecosystem services — from disease buffering to pollination — are at risk of loss. I argue that conservation science has failed to achieve its fundamental goal of protecting biodiversity and we need new approaches. ASU’s CBO aims to bring together scholars from different disciplines to innovate new ways to solve the biodiversity crisis, and linking this scholarship to decision makers and managers.

Q: You were recently interviewed by the New York Times on this issue. You told them that a healthy environment is linked to strong social and economic systems, and you proposed financing opportunities and financial markets for biodiversity as promising approaches to measure and value biodiversity. Can you unpack some of this for me?

A: In the context of biodiversity conservation, innovative financing refers to market-based mechanisms that account for the value of biodiversity. Financial markets for biodiversity broadly includes managing capital and using financial incentives to support sustainable biodiversity management. Such markets may include private and public financial resources used to conserve biodiversity, investments in commercial activities that produce positive biodiversity outcomes and the value of the transactions in biodiversity-related markets such as habitat banking.

At present, 12% to 17% of the estimated $300 billion to $400 billion of investment needed annually to maintain global biodiversity currently flows to conservation finance, with most originating from limited public and philanthropic sources. Yet, institutional investors and other asset managers have more than $175 trillion in assets for global economic activity. There is thus opportunity to direct private capital towards conservation investments, despite the marketplace for such investments being slow to develop to date. A key hurdle is that there are no established mechanisms for investors to consider the value of nature and the consequences of their activities for biodiversity.

Q: You’ve also stated that this is a “public value failure” in conservation science. What do you mean by that?

A: The idea of public value failure comes from ASU's very own Barry Bozeman, who proposed the idea as a corollary to market failure. A market failure is an instance where the private sector and the market malfunctions and fails to do what we expect it to do — deliver economic value. A public value failure is an instance where the public sector and the government malfunctions and fails to deliver things that the public values, such as conservation. Just like we can look at a market failure and ask "what went wrong; why did this fail?" we can look at a public value failure and ask the same questions.

My research on actionable science in conservation with Derrick Anderson, Chris Barton and Candice Carr Kelman has approached this question, and we have come up with a couple of interesting answers. One finding is that a persistent gap exists between the generation of ecological knowledge and the application of this knowledge to solving pressing conservation challenges. There is an incongruence between what a recent paper called "the logic of inquiry" — which animates researchers — and the logic of action, which animates practitioners and policymakers. Those doing the research and those "on the ground" making policy or taking action are often working in different worlds and not communicating. Researchers produce knowledge for which there is no audience, and other stakeholders have questions which remain unanswered. There is a growing need for evidence-based approaches to conservation challenges, but the fact is that taking action does not require complete or accurate knowledge. 

The logic of public value failure has yielded valuable insights on other realms of science and technology, and helped these fields effectively deliver public value. Viewing conservation failures as public value failures opens up a whole new toolbox for understanding the issues of conservation and, hopefully, rectifying them.

Q: In the coming years, more than 1 million species will be threatened with extinction. What will that mean for our planet and society, and how do we fix this?

A: At present, our main challenge is not trying to figure out what’s wrong; it’s about deciding to take action to address the problem. The science is clear about the biodiversity crisis, and we have options for solutions. We can start by looking to experience to figure out what works to conserve biodiversity.

To combat the biodiversity crisis, we will need to make this issue a higher national priority and establish a comprehensive federal response. We need a coordinated all-of-government approach to confront this problem at home so that we can avoid more extinctions like these. While multiple federal agencies are already tasked with protecting and conserving key aspects of biodiversity in the U.S., there is no coordinating policy to maximize these efforts or facilitate collaboration among them.

Indeed, U.S. congressional leaders are discussing an NBS (national biodiversity strategy) to guide national efforts to address the biodiversity crisis. I recently had the opportunity to deliver congressional testimony on the biodiversity crisis and the need for an integrated strategy, and our CBO Program Leads have partnered to propose a process to establish a strategy.

U.S. public support for conserving biodiversity continues to be strong, but a national strategy is unlikely to succeed if it relies solely on top-down policy or legislation, without incorporating inclusive, community-led approaches with input from all stakeholders. Arizona’s U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly is a proponent of the initiative and is particularly focused on ensuring that an effective and equitable NBS is developed through public engagement.

An NBS would help clarify the contributions of these essential elements to biodiversity conservation, through providing a coherent policy framework for comprehensively addressing the extinction crisis and other leading drivers of species decline. A National Biodiversity Strategy is a necessary complement to the America the Beautiful initiative and is the best chance we have ever had to reverse course and secure our planet’s rich biodiversity, for its own sake, for our immediate well-being and for future generations.

Top image: A color engraving of an ivory-billed woodpecker by John J. Audubon. Illustration courtesy of the Library of Congress

Reporter , ASU News


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Controversial statues: Should they stay or should they go?

October 7, 2021

'What we choose to memorialize speaks to our values as a society,' ASU professor says

As a student at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Arizona State University English Professor Natalie Diaz remembers seeing the Robert E. Lee monument every time her basketball team traveled to play the University of Richmond Spiders.

“I have a complex relationship with monuments,” said Diaz, now a world-renowned poet. “Most monuments I'm aware of attest to conquered people and lands, including my people.”

The Robert E. Lee monument, erected several decades after the Civil War to commemorate the Confederate general, was recently removed following more than a year of protests for racial justice. Also removed from the monument’s base was a 133-year-old copper time capsule containing artifacts and ephemera related to the Confederacy. Among the items included in a new time capsule that will take its place is a copy of Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Postcolonial Love Poem.”

“When my old basketball coach Wendy Larry texted me to tell me the Virginia governor's office was trying to reach me, I had no idea what they might want. When I found out they were taking the statue down, it was close to my birthday and felt like a lucky birthday present,” Diaz said. “It was a great energy to be a part of removing that statue and seeding something new in its place; a little piece of respect and love for the land, which is what I consider the poem to be.”

Debate around the removal of memorials and monuments that honor people and ideas whose messages and causes are considered offensive to certain marginalized groups has been a hot-button issue of late in the national conversation. ASU Associate Professor of English Kathleen Lamp, a historian who specializes in the rhetoric of public art, including memorials and monuments, said such controversy is as old as time.

“Iconoclasm is not new; it’s been going on for thousands of years in different circumstances,” Lamp said. “Basically any time a new government or regime or religion comes in, stuff gets torn down, temples get sacked. What that signals is a shift in power.”

In the modern-day case of the removal of U.S. monuments that many argue commend white supremacy and colonialism, the shift in power could be seen as from those who deny the racist overtones of such structures — or who maintain that some monuments have historical or aesthetic value worth preserving — to those who embrace a national culture of inclusion.

“I grew up seeing hundreds of small stone and bronze markers along our desert roads telling us about the great white Americans who passed through or ‘discovered’ the great West or our mighty Colorado River,” said Diaz, who was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. “And I also grew up hearing stories from my family or reading in archives the terrible things those men did to my people.”

ASU News sat down with Lamp, whose current scholarship focuses on the classical influence on U.S. public art, memorials and monuments, and how those sites guide understandings of citizenship and civic participation, to learn more about the issues at play in this ongoing dialogue.

Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Why do we have monuments and memorials? What purpose do they serve in society?

Answer: We have to distinguish what kind of monuments we’re talking about. Monuments of people – statuary – I think come out of a tradition of imitation. The idea is, this is a statue of a civil leader, and they are someone whose virtue or deeds we’re meant to emulate as citizens. We’re holding them up as a model of civic identity, of what the rest of us should be doing. It’s also important to distinguish statues from records of history, because that’s not what they’re about. They’re models of civic behavior that we should all strive to. We see this in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol. When it was founded, there was a lot of discussion about how it was important to have representations of leaders of civic virtue in the space where our current leaders are, so they have an example to strive for.

Q: What can you tell us about America’s history with monuments and memorials?

A: My first book (“A City of Marble”) was about the Roman emperor Augustus and how he used the built environment to shape civic identity at a time of great change for Rome. I got more interested in the U.S. history of monuments when I started to look around and wonder where all the neoclassical buildings came from. In particular, a lot of our civic buildings — our courthouses, our state capitals, even our public squares and parks — are in the neoclassical style.

The reason for that was a movement called City Beautiful. It started in the 1890s with the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The architect Daniel Burnham was a leader in the movement; he went on to do the McMillan Plan for the National Mall in D.C. But I think what’s so interesting about the City Beautiful movement is that it controlled public spaces in a very specific way, and it was ultimately a movement about assimilation, and a movement that came out of a real concern about immigration.

During this period, ethnicities we now consider to be white — Irish and Italian, for example — were not considered to be white. And there was a real concern about assimilating these immigrants into … you can call it Americanization, but what it really was was an assimilation into white, Protestant culture. There was the thought that these immigrants needed to be turned into productive workers, and that concern is where a lot of our public spaces come from.

Squares with statues of ostensibly virtuous civil leaders at the center often came out of the City Beautiful movement. This time also coincided with the creation of many Confederate monuments, though they were coming from a different set of concerns. Confederate monuments were put up in response to Blacks getting more rights, as a kind of a backlash. Starting with the Reconstruction, we see them being used as a way to control public spaces and maintain white supremacy alongside other things like lynching, controlling school curriculums, etc.

Q: Why is the removal of statues such a fraught topic?

A: What we choose to memorialize speaks to our values as a society, and often, certain populations are excluded entirely from that. I think in general in this country, statues have held up a very white, male virtue. They often depict political leaders, but more often military leaders. ... When we get into Confederate monuments specifically, again, they were purposely put up at times when Blacks were beginning to gain more rights as citizens, and very often, they were erected in public, civic spaces, often on courthouse lawns, specifically to let Black people know that even though, legally, they had more rights, those rights wouldn’t be upheld there. Following the murder of George Floyd, I think we started to see a broader recognition of how statues in civic spaces can exclude certain people.

Q: How do we decide what stays and what goes?

A: That’s such a complex issue. There’s one school of thought that says communities should be the ones to decide. That if monuments embody community values, then it should be a community decision. I think the problem with that is that the balance of power in communities can be really problematic. When we’re talking about the Lee statue, it’s a really good example of what can happen when there is disagreement in the community about what its values are. The Lee statue had been designated a historic monument, so people thought that would protect it from removal, but the governor of Virginia said, no, we’re taking it down.

What you got in the interim before that happened was a kind of a battle over community values. The statue was defaced, there was a lot of graffiti that dealt with defunding the police, and there are some incredibly powerful images that were taken during that time, some of which are going into the new time capsule. And that’s so important, because future generations will see those images of self-representation of groups that have traditionally been excluded from these monuments making a statement about how colonization has affected them, or how they have survived and are resilient.

Ultimately, as far as who gets to decide, I think activism is what gets it done. When activists deface statues, ultimately what they’re doing is forcing the city’s hand so that they either have to put money into restoration, which doubles down on whatever message that monument is sending, or they can just remove it. Activism forces a reckoning with what our values are.

Q: Are there any monuments that, even though they send a message most agree is now outdated or harmful, should still be kept as a kind of reminder of what not to do, or what we have overcome?

A: There’s certainly a school of thought that says so, that maybe they could be taken out of civic spaces and put into a museum where they can be recontextualized. But that’s incredibly problematic. Then you’re asking museums to do a lot of work they don’t want to do and maybe shouldn’t be doing. I also think it gives credence to the kind of exclusionary work that they already perform. Personally, I think there are other ways to remember our racist history as a society. I think what you see with the Lee monument and this new time capsule is a good example of how we can handle that. It’s a different use of the space, one that recognizes the damage done by colonialism and that values self-representation of people of color and Indigenous people that have previously been excluded from such spaces. So to me, if statues are performing this work of showing us what we most value as a society, once our values change, no, we shouldn’t keep them. I don’t think there’s any value there.

Top photo: The base of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia, after his statue was removed from atop it. Photo courtesy of Getty Images/iStockphoto