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Conservation tool helps decide when to start protecting a habitat

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In a study published in journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution scientists have revealed findings of how their new conservation tool helps them calculate when it is time to stop researching a particular habitat and to take action and start working towards protecting it.

Taking a decision about what is the right time to stop researching and learning about a particular habitat and when to start working towards its conservation is one of the most common issues faced by scientists and policy makers. Using a new method it is now possible to decide what is the right time for research and when should the conservation begin.

The work provides guidelines on the effective allocation of resources between habitat identification and habitat protection, predicting the optimal time to spend learning even when relatively little is known about a species and its habitat. Determining the optimal timing for habitat protection is vital if we are to ensure effective, long-term protection.

Using a simple model, the new method calculates how long we should spend improving our knowledge of a species’ habitat before deciding which areas to protect, based upon an estimated rate of habitat loss and speed of acquiring knowledge. The researchers tested the method on two threatened species, the koala and northern abalone (a sea snail). They found that optimal time to spend learning is short when the threats are high. When habitat loss is low, the species benefit from greater knowledge, leading to an increased proportion of the species’ habitat being protected.

Protecting habitat is the most valuable action for conservation, but it requires understanding the habitat requirements for the species of interest. Timely decisions can save species from extinction, but acting too soon might lead to protecting the wrong habitat – a costly decision that is often irreversible.

The optimal timing for habitat protection also depends on the amount of non-habitat we can afford to protect. Any land that is incorrectly identified as habitat and protected unnecessarily can lead to conflict with other land uses.

The new method developed in this study has potential to be used in other areas of conservation decision-making. For example, to minimize the impact of harvesting wild plants and animals or manage the detrimental effects of invasive species. The approach can also be built on further, to provide guidance on optimising on-the-ground surveys, thus enabling conservationists to use time and funds most efficiently.