Report – ZL3204 – Spieces or Ecosystem Management?

ZL 3204

Should we be Managing Species or Ecosystems?

The goal of preserving the world’s biodiversity by saving one threatened species after another is clearly hopeless. We might be better off managing ecosystems to keep them in a healthy condition, but what are the hidden costs of this approach for biodiversity conservation?

Not everyone cares about the fate of the environment or wild animals. Some people would not worry if the world’s wild animals disappeared overnight, that’s because they are city people. Although people have always made use of wild animals and nature, the scale of use is far greater than in primitive ages (Bolton, 1997).

Everything has been visited… everything exploited. Now pleasant estates obliterate the famous wilderness area of the past. Ploughed fields have suppressed the forests; domesticated animals have dispersed wildlife. Beaches are ploughed, mountains smoothed and swamps cleaned… We weigh heavily upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us. As our needs grow larger, so do our protests that already nature does not sustain us.

This statement could have been done by any modern conservationist or environmentalist, but it was written by a Tertulian in 200AD. Even then, there were conservation and environmental problems and concerns of similar kind facing the modern technological society (Webb, 1997).

The evolving concept of ecosystem management is the focus of much debate. The general goal of maintaining ecological integrity will be discussed along with five specific goals; maintaining viable populations, ecosystem representation, maintaining ecological processes (i.e. natural disturbances), protecting evolutionary potential for species and ecosystems and accommodating human use in all of the above.

Ecosystem management is not just a about science nor is it simply an extension of traditional resource management; it implies a total re-framing of how humans view and work with nature, becoming more ‘one with nature’ if you wish.

The question if we should be managing species or ecosystems is a very complex, the goal of preserving the world’s biodiversity by saving one threatened species after another is clearly hopeless. We might be better off managing ecosystems to keep them in a healthy condition.

The single species management concept is based on preserving species that are vulnerable, endangered or if the species have specific value to the ecosystem as so called keystone-species.

Keystones species concept has also been heavily discussed in the literature due to the lack of clarity of the definition. However, the basic idea of the concept is that the keystone species is keeping many other species in check, and thereby increasing the biodiversity, if the keystone species is removed it effects the entire system, e.g. the starfish Pisaster that when removed the habitat is nearly completely dominated by two mussel species, therefore lost biodiversity.

Before keystone species become the centrepiece for biodiversity protection or habitat restoration, we must be able to say what is and is not a keystone species.

Another single species conservation approach is using a so called umbrella species. This refer to a conspicuous species that if preserved it will preserve many other species living in the same habitat.

Single species management is argued by people that have a holistic view that, effective insightful management is not only expensive and ineffective, but impossible, because the species exists only as part of an ecosystem.

However, due the increasing responsibilities of park managers and the ever decreasing funding, managing populations of specific species will lead us to fall further and further behind in meeting the challenge of preserving biodiversity.

It has been argued that the only way to deal with this problem is to manage whole ecosystems or entire landscapes by unified methods designed to save all the inhabitants of the area at one time.


Ecosystem management is a response to today’s deepening biodiversity crises. It started however, as early as 1930s and 1940s, were the Ecological Society of America’s Committee for the Study of Plant and Animal Communities recognised that a comprehensive U.S. nature sanctuary system must protect ecosystems as well as particular species of concern, represent a wide range of ecosystem types, manage for ecological “fluctuations” (i.e. natural disturbances) and develop a core reserve/buffer zone approach.

In 1935, George Wright and Ben Thompson observed that parks were not fully functional ecosystems “by the virtue of boundary and size limitations”. Wright lobbied for increasing the size of parks by redrawing their boundaries to reflect biotic requirements of large mammals, but his death cut his efforts short. Many other of these early attempts to terrestrial resource management with a ecosystem conservation approach were not successful.

In the late 1970s, Frank and John Craighead, focused on ecosystem management when they researched grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) populations. They found that the bear’s needs could not be met solely within the boarders of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone NP is a huge park with an area covering 900.000 Ha or 9000 km2 even so, the Craigheads suggested that the Yellowstone population required at least the double or 20.000 km2. Their pioneering study set a fundamental criterion for defining greater ecosystems: the area must provide the primary habitat necessary to sustain the largest carnivore in the region.

It took about ten years before the terrestrial resource managers took a ecosystem approach and before it was accepted by many scientists, managers and others.

Also, in the late 1980s the first book-length treatment on ecosystem management appeared and the authors to the book, Agee & Johnson brought people directly into the equation. This meant that managers could no longer discount the effects of humans in ecosystems.

Ecosystem management has not evolved in a vacuum. There are many major reasons why the debate is gaining momentum.

  1. The biodiversity crises continues to accelerate.
  2. No policy initiatives have as yet been shown to slow down environmental deterioration.
  3. Calls for ecosystem management have increase in conjunction with the theoretical and empirical development of conservation biology.
  4. The safety net of U.S. environmental laws is being stretched thin as society reaches and exceeds environmental limits through industrial expansion, population growth and resource consumption.
  5. Environmental groups, have increasingly used administrative appeals and litigation to challenge successfully current resource management policies and practices.
  6. Federal management, as exemplified by national forest planning has (so far) failed legal tests, ignored conservation biology concerns, and left the public’s expectations for meaningful participation in decision making unfulfilled.
  7. Societal views of appropriate relationships between people and nature are in a state of flux.

It appears that many citizens are asking for less development and more protection and preservation of ecosystems.

However, given these seven points, it is not at all clear what the new cultural and political landscape of management will look like over the long term or even in the next five to ten years.


Most scientists and managers agree that clear goals is crucial to the success of ecosystem management.

Five specific goals were frequently endorsed;

  1. Maintaining viable populations.
  2. Ecosystem representation.
  3. Maintaining ecological processes (i.e. natural disturbances).
  4. Protecting evolutionary potential for species and ecosystems.
  5. Accommodating human use in all of the above.

If ecosystem management is to take hold and flourish, the relationship between the new goal of protecting the ecological integrity and the old standard of providing goods and services for humans must be reconciled. Ecological integrity as expressed by the five specific goals explicitly considers all resource use as a managerial workmanship that may flow sustainably from natural ecosystems only if basic ecosystem patterns and processes are maintained.

A policy analyst pointed out that “the ecosystem management debate is really complex, competitive, conflictual social process about whose values will dominate, it is not about science”.

Management goals are statements of values – certain outcomes are selected over others. Choosing the management goal of maintaining ecological integrity along with the five specific goals may be debated, but in the academic and popular literature there is general agreement that maintaining ecosystem integrity should take precedence over any other management goal. This may be due partially to the fact that, given the rate and scale of environmental deterioration along with profound scientific ignorance of ecological patterns and processes, we are in no position to make judgement about what ecosystem elements to favour in our management efforts. An increasing number of people also believe that humans do not have any privileged ethical standing from which to arbitrate these kinds of questions.

Short term policy implications for scientists is that new research have to be initiated, designing continental-scale biodiversity protection network built around a system of core reserves, buffer zones and habitat corridors and sustainable methods for using some of the products of ecosystems derived from the buffers and matrices of non-reserved lands.

Long term implications include the shift towards ecosystem management which is often described as movement away from a single species approach to a whole systems, multi-species framework. This is only partly true. As now should be clear, ecosystem management is not just a about science nor is it simply an extension of traditional resource management. Implementation of ecosystem management requires a “seismic shift” in the mindset of humans.

Some more provocative long term (>100years) implications could be argued to be that ecosystem management is an early stage in a fundamental re-framing of how humans value nature. It is a response to resourceism – the belief held by many people in modern industrial societies that the world gains value only as nature is transformed into goods and services to meet human demands.

The biodiversity crises, so far, has spawned what some would characterise as a scientific ecosystem management based on “value-free” experimentation, control by professional expert, and centralised decision making. To many , however, the promise of biodiversity crises is: adjusting management to stave off mass extinctions and habitat destruction will not help to reduce our negative impact on the biosphere but will also give us the opportunity to reinterpret our place on the planet as one species among many. Protecting ecological integrity becomes the ultimate test of weather people will learn to fit in with nature. Thus, ecosystem management gains more importance far beyond finding new ways to manage parks and forests.

Biodiversity conservation ultimately requires a rejection of humanism or anthropocentrism… it requires a biocentric embrace of all life. (Noss & Cooperrider, 1994).

Biocentric or ecocentric values fit neatly with the management goal of protecting ecological integrity. But, because of dominant values that still support resourceism, a host of practical issues remain. When, for example, will it become politically acceptable to incorporate non-human beings into ecological decision making? Do managers play a role here?

To conclude, the history tells us that change does not always come easily, peacefully or in a planed manner. Implementing the short-term scientific aspects of ecosystem management is daunting enough. For the moment, however, ecosystem management provides our best opportunity to describe, understand and fit in with nature. We know that the risk of extinction increases under certain conditions, that wildfires cannot long be suppressed without significant successional consequences, that political power must somehow be less centralised, that whales and spider also be allowed to vote. We are also coming to realise that resourceism has for so long prevented us from putting our ecological knowledge to work that we are facing the limits of life on earth for many species. Where once we thought endangered species were the problem, we now face the loss of entire ecosystems.

Ecosystem management, at root, is an invitation, a call to restorative action that promises a healthy future for entire biotic enterprise. The choice is ours – a world where the gap between people and nature grows to an incomprehensible chasm, or a world of damaged but recoverable ecological integrity where the operative word is hope.

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