Conserving migratory species

The multiple challenges of planning for complex migratory networks

Migratory species are pretty amazing. Some species travel vast distances in a single migration. An individual bar-tailed godwit, a migratory wading bird, was once tracked as travelling an incredible 11,000 km in a single flight! Arctic terns travel the equivalent of to the Moon and back three times over the course of their life. But it’s not just the distances they cover that is awe inspiring. Some of them return year after year to the same location, navigating across landscapes that have been transformed by humans.

Given such Herculean feats, it seems tragic that many of the world’s migratory species are now in serious decline (see ‘Birds in the red’, Decision Point #59). Unfortunately, addressing the causes of these declines presents a major conservation challenge. Migratory species rely on many different landscapes, often across multiple political boundaries. Even if we had the capacity to save habitat in distant parts of the world – far beyond our own borders – there’s enormous uncertainty about which part of the network of sites used by migratory species we should focus on.

The good news is that in some cases conservation actions for migratory species can result in rapid benefits. For example, zebra migration in Botswana spontaneously resumed when fences were removed. These fences had blocked the traditional migration route for decades.

Eastern curlews (Numenius madagascariensis) migrate each year from the Arctic to Australia, stopping to refuel at tidal flats across the East Asian- Australasian Flyway. The species has recently been listed as nationally threatened, and habitats across its migration and non-breeding range are vulnerable to degradation and loss through declines in prey, reclamation, changes in sedimentation patterns and sea level rise. Managing these multiple interacting threats requires conservation actions that take account of migratory connectivity, and that operate in many countries across the Flyway. One important conservation initiative has been the formation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, an alliance of 30 governments and NGOs working across the region. The Partnership has already listed a network of more than 100 important sites across the Flyway in 16 countries. (Photo © Dean Ingwersen)

Eastern curlews (Numenius madagascariensis) migrate each year from the Arctic to Australia, stopping to refuel at tidal flats across the East Asian- Australasian Flyway. The species has recently been listed as nationally threatened, and habitats across its migration and non-breeding range are vulnerable to degradation and loss through declines in prey, reclamation, changes in sedimentation patterns and sea level rise. Managing these multiple interacting threats requires conservation actions that take account of migratory connectivity, and that operate in many countries across the Flyway. One important conservation initiative has been the formation of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway Partnership, an alliance of 30 governments and NGOs working across the region. The Partnership has already listed a network of more than 100 important sites across the Flyway in 16 countries. (Photo © Dean Ingwersen)

Connections between places

Migrant species rely on multiple sites including breeding grounds, non-breeding grounds and the places they travel through on the way between the two. This reliance on multiple sites makes migrants particularly vulnerable to habitat loss or degradation (consider Figure 1). In the extreme, if all individuals of a species regularly move between two areas, the area in worst condition will dictate the overall status of the species. Conservation measures taken in the less critical area may make little difference.

Figure 1: In this theoretical example, habitat loss has affected one-eighth of the total available habitat to a species that occurs in two patches. If habitat quality and population abundance are evenly distributed within and among patches, we might predict that a sedentary species (a) will decline in total population size by one-eighth as a result of the habitat loss. Where the two patches are linked by migration (b), we might predict a population decline of one-quarter because the entire population passes through the affected patch at some point during its life cycle. Taking it one step further, if one habitat patch is lost altogether, extinction of the migratory species may result.

Figure 1: In this theoretical example, habitat loss has affected one-eighth of the total available habitat to a species that occurs in two patches. If habitat quality and population abundance are
evenly distributed within and among patches, we might predict that a sedentary species (a) will decline in total population size by one-eighth as a result of the habitat loss. Where the two patches
are linked by migration (b), we might predict a population decline of one-quarter because the entire population passes through the affected patch at some point during its life cycle. Taking it one
step further, if one habitat patch is lost altogether, extinction of the migratory species may result.

Places such as stopover sites or drought refuges can also be crucial to a large proportion of the population even though they might be occupied only for a short period of time. Conservation interventions for migrants need to take these connections between places into account and ensure that migratory species have the resources they need across their breeding grounds, non-breeding grounds and the stopover sites or corridors they use along the way. This can be difficult, particularly where migrants move across jurisdictions or habitats. But it can be crucial for their long-term survival.

For example, the number of migratory shorebirds using the East Asian-Australasian Flyway has declined dramatically in the past few decades, and evidence implicates habitat loss at important stopover sites in the Yellow Sea (see ‘Between a rock and a hard place’, Decision Point #81). If this hypothesis is correct, then action to manage shorebird habitat elsewhere in the Flyway might fail to halt the decline of these birds without corresponding management at stopover sites in eastern Asia. Similarly, the migratory leatherback sea turtle is declining as a result of a combination of egg-poaching at its nesting sites and mortality from both inshore fisheries and pelagic long-line fishing. International restrictions on pelagic long-line fishing will not halt the decline of this species without corresponding effort at inshore locations and nesting sites.

Places such as stopover sites or drought refuges can also be crucial to a large proportion of the population even though they might be occupied only for a short period of time.

Planning across networks

One of the key challenges in the conservation of migratory species is developing ways to design conservation plans across a complex network of sites. Conservation planning has tended to assume that the targets of management, such as species or ecosystems, are static in space and time. Of course, we have to start somewhere so it’s not really surprising that management targets are static because accounting for migratory movements can be pretty complicated.

However, the growing sophistication of conservation planning tools means it’s now possible to incorporate the dynamic needs of migrants into our conservation plans. Spatial prioritisation software such as Marxan and Zonation have already been used to design conservation networks which manage migrants across the whole migratory cycle.

Some of the approaches we need for migratory species conservation have yet to be developed. We should be able to design solutions that maximize future evolutionary potential, or minimize the chance of random events, like cyclones or bushfires, wiping out populations. Such solutions, which will be needed to address the dual threats of climate change and habitat loss, might focus on the conservation of multiple sub-populations and dynamic migratory corridors.

A flock of bar-tailed godwits. Migratory shorebirds such as these have been experiencing worrying declines in recent years. Will people in the future be able to witness their amazing feats of migration? (Photo by Rob Clemens)

A flock of bar-tailed godwits. Migratory shorebirds such as these have been experiencing worrying declines in recent years. Will people in the future be able to witness their amazing feats of migration?
(Photo by Rob Clemens)

Learn or act?

Given financial and time constraints, an intensive research-driven approach to conservation will not be feasible for the vast majority of migrants, especially where little is known about the connections between parts of their range.

Where information is limited, planners have basically three choices:

  1. Invest in activities that improve current knowledge (ie ‘learning more’)
  2. Use existing information to estimate the optimal conservation plan, or
  3. Undertake a combination of learning while taking action (ie adaptive management)

Although it is what we often fall back on, ‘learning more’ is not always the most effective way to achieve the best conservation outcomes. Delays in action, the risk of catastrophic population declines while new knowledge is acquired, and the fact that resources might be diverted from on-the-ground management all mean that postponing action may result in unacceptable losses

A lot of the time we know a lot more than we think. Tracking studies, stable isotopes measurements, or genetic studies can be used to get information on the connections between parts of migratory species’ ranges, though these approaches can be costly, time-consuming and require specialist knowledge. Luckily, we can often use expert elicitation (a formal way of obtaining expert opinion, see ‘So you think you’re an expert’, Decision Point #58) to get a good approximation of migratory connectivity between parts of a species range, and use this to guide our conservation decisions when we have limited resources.

Similarly, the use of decision-theoretic approaches and artificial intelligence can aid decision making where data are scarce. These techniques can also demonstrate how to optimally allocate time and resources between learning and taking action across space and time.

The application of decision science to solve migratory species conservation problems follows the same basic principles as any well-designed prioritization process: (1) define a clear objective (eg, what to minimize or maximize); (2) specify a set of conservation actions from which a subset will be chosen as priorities; (3) make hypotheses on how specific conservation actions will help meet the conservation objective; (4) consider resource constraints (ie, time and money); and (5) implement decisions in a way that promotes learning.

A future with migratory species

Large-scale conservation schemes are yet to incorporate the needs of migratory species. That’s not surprising given the complex, multi-jurisdictional challenge of migratory conservation. However, the need is great and, as I hope I have convinced you here, the tools are now available. With a little care and some well-designed investment, it’s a challenge we can meet. And in doing so, future generations will hopefully be able to experience the amazing and inspiring phenomenon that is wildlife migration.


More info: Claire Runge claire.runge@uqconnect.edu.au

Reference

Runge CA, TG Martin, HP Possingham, SG Willis & RA Fuller (2014). Conserving mobile species. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 395–402. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/130237

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