Using paleoecology to practice conservation: Mixed perspectives from the field
Paleoecological studies often document important patterns and reveal key insights to processes and sometimes the mechanisms behind ecological change. But this often falls short of practitioners’ application needs. What kinds of information can paleoecology provide that will address questions focused on conservation and management action? Several of my colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) are drawn to the idea of adding a long-term perspective to their work and gaining insight into responses to past conditions toward informing current and future action. The results of my own job-based interactions with a few individuals and an informal polling of the larger WCS North America Program staff suggest that few have observed or experienced any “practical conservation impact”, loosely defined as some direct link between relevant paleoecological information and action. I will present a series of examples of paleoecologial research from my own work and that of others at WCS. These will include examples that have successfully informed conservation and management, as well as others that describe past efforts and some recent attempts to develop research that have fallen short.
This look at a limited collection of endeavors and the associated commentary of the conservation practitioners yield a few relevant points. Spatially explicit data were often used to address the question of “were things here”, offering support for reintroductions of species, the protection of particular sites, and restoration to some earlier condition. Paleoecological information quantified in a way readily transferable to management measures (at what level or density, in what pattern) was also useful, to inform national policy in one example. It is noteworthy, though, that most of the affirmative examples represent an opportunistic use of existing data, rather than the application of output from deliberate research targeted at a specific conservation issue. These observations and a summary of identified challenges highlight some of the elements needed to advance the application of paleoecological methods toward practical conservation impact.