Grappling with the social dimension of novel ecosystems

Regardless of what conservation decisions are made, none can be said to be objective. From the species we choose to protect, to the ecosystems we choose to study, or the management strategies we endeavour to implement – all these decisions are fundamentally driven by the conservation values held by decision-makers.

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Anna Backstrom and others from ICON Science explore this idea in a new paper on the social dimensions of novel ecosystems.

Novel ecosystems are a contentious space for conservationists because they are a consequence of human-induced environmental change. For some, they are a vivid example of what conservationists are fighting to reverse. But often these changes are irreversible. For others, novel ecosystems represent a closure of the nature-human divide and are the new wild.

Management benchmarks for novel ecosystems are difficult to establish. There is an argument that all species would have been new to a system at one point in time, therefore every ecosystem could be considered novel. Choosing what historical trajectory to aim for is not simple. Novel ecosystems are also places where indigenous species have learnt to make use of the non-indigenous. This is seen in habitat gaps filled by exotic plants that are then used by indigenous fauna. Here, a decision is needed about which species to manage for – eradicate the non-indigenous species and lose habitat or maintain the exotics to protect the fauna species.

Resolving management decisions for novel ecosystems requires conservation decision-makers to acknowledge and trade-off between multiple values, which may be environmental, social or economic. We propose a values-based decision approach for determining appropriate management of modified ecosystems and argue that it is only within this ecological decision-making context that there is a defined role for the novel ecosystem concept. Using this approach, novel ecosystems are assessed not as “right” or “wrong”, but by the extent to which they meet desired ecological, social, and economic objectives. 

Citation:

Backstrom AGarrard GE, Hobbs RJ, Bekessy SA. (Online, 6 February 2018) Grappling with the social dimension of novel ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. doi:10.1002/fee.1769.

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