Migration Conservation: A View from Above

Article excerpt

I.  The Importance of Animal Migration Conservation
II. The Symposium Articles
    A. Scientific Research Agenda
    B. Law and Policy Reform
    C. Collaboration Case Studies
III. Conclusion


Animal migrations are widely appreciated as among the most awe-inspiring spectacles of nature. Yet, they are hardly recognized in the law of biodiversity protection. Migration as a phenomenon, and the migratory species of all taxa that display this fascinating behavior, are disappearing all over the world with attendant loss of ecosystem functions and social values. The decline of migrations is a sadly familiar tale in conservation literature: compelling evidence reveals that large-scale migrations are succumbing to the pressures of habitat modification, prey disappearance, hunting pressures, barriers to movement, and pollution. The diverse animals that migrate, including butterflies, salmon, sea turtles, bats, and songbirds, are struggling to continue a tenuous yet important adaptation.

Extinction prevention programs employ population thresholds that may be inadequate to preserve migratory behavior. So, we may retain bison, whooping cranes, and salmon, but lose the suite of benefits migrations provide. Besides the subjective human experience, animal migrations cycle nutrients and facilitate other ecological processes. Many promote ecosystem resilience that enhances the ability of natural systems to recover from disturbances and stresses, including some manifestations of climate change. (1)

There are two primary reasons why conservation of migratory species does not always preserve actual migrations. The first is habitat loss or migration route barriers that thwart movement. This is why connectivity linking breeding sites, travel paths, wintering areas, and key sources of food across landscapes is a key challenge for conserving animal migrations. Connectivity is also critical for effective adaptation to climate change, which will spur species to disperse into new regions. (2) In that respect, successful efforts to maintain animal migrations may create templates for improving ecological resilience as climate change accelerates. One important theme of this symposium is that conserving migrations will offer lessons applicable to the problem of climate change adaptation.

The second reason is that some species require populations well above minimum-viable, survival levels in order to engage in migration. (3) The rationale for preserving migratory behavior, therefore, must go beyond the rationale of preventing extinction. Keeping common species common is a traditional justification for conservation actions, particularly for programs aimed at sustained yield. (4) Maintaining abundant migrations forestalls the difficult triage decisions of recovering imperiled species and provides greater ecological services and resilience to landscapes. Abundant migrations are increasingly rare. So, paradoxically, the conventional motivations for preserving wondrous but rare aspects of nature would also support some of the migration conservation agenda.

Suppose that law and policy were to wholeheartedly embrace a conservation goal of maintaining ecological functions and processes to supplement the ecological elements (e.g., imperiled species, coastal wetlands) on which existing programs focus. The conservation challenge of protecting all migrations would nevertheless be insurmountable. Yet the research reflected in this symposium can be used to set priorities. Generally, resources should be devoted to two kinds of migrations: 1) those involving sufficiently large populations as to be important shapers of ecosystems; and 2) motivators of conservation among the public.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that complex conservation challenges require collaboration. (5) However, as with Jane Austen's aphorism, confident declarations often belie vexing difficulties in their execution. …