New Study Shows Protected Lands in the U.S. Mismatch Priorities for Biodiversity, with Southeast the Area Most in Need

NAZARÉ PAULISTA, BRAZIL – A new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences evaluates the protected areas of the United States and their coverage of biological diversity.

Using a detailed analysis of more than 3,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater

fish, and trees, the authors introduce a collection of new biodiversity maps and an assessment of

priorities for expanding biodiversity protection in the country.

 

The researchers find that the existing portfolio of protected lands ‐ both federal and private – poorly

matches the biodiversity priorities in the country. Many regions that are rich in unique or rare species,

such as the Southeast and the southern Appalachians, have inadequate levels of protection.

 

The study’s lead author Clinton Jenkins, currently a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Ecological

Research, says, “Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinctions, and so where and how much

society chooses to protect is vital for saving life on the planet. The U.S. has protected many areas, but it

has yet to protect many of the most biologically important parts of the country.”

 

While the authors find that the total area protected in the lower 48 states is substantial, nearly 8%, its

geographic configuration is nearly the opposite of where the country’s unique species concentrate,

known as centers of endemism. Most protected lands are in the West, while the vulnerable species are

largely in the Southeast. The authors find that private land protections are significant, but they are also

not concentrated where the biological priorities are.

 

“We have the information to identify important places. What is needed is the political will and adequate

resources to protect the nation’s biological heritage,” says Jenkins. “Many of these species exist only in

small parts of the country. Unless we take responsibility and protect them, they could disappear from

the planet.”

To improve the protection coverage, the authors created a map of priorities based on multiple groups of

animals and trees, and recommend specific areas for immediate conservation attention. These areas

contain a mix of public and private land, meaning that major progress in conservation will require

actions in both the public and private sectors.

 

Kyle Van Houtan, a coauthor on the study and an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric

Administration (NOAA) said, "This emphasizes the plight of endemic species ‐ those that occur nowhere

else in the world ‐ and for which U.S. protected areas are critical to their survival. While they may not all

be rhinos, lions, and pandas, it is these species that are essential in their ecosystems that compose the

American landscape.”

 

The world’s preeminent expert on biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at Harvard

University, wrote: “This is the most important scientific report of at least the last decade on the

distribution of America’s parks and biodiversity, with implications for future policy on conservation and

land use.”

 

Co‐author Joseph Sexton, senior scientist at the University of Maryland Global Land Cover Facility says,

"Diversity gives nature the ability to adapt to change. Losing the variety of life in these places means

increasing their risk of failing to adapt to the many human pressures in our rapidly changing world.”

 

Among the many species evaluated are the endangered Bluemask Darter (Etheostoma akatulo), a rare

species restricted to the Caney Fork River system in Tennessee, and the Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon

welleri), a species restricted to high elevations in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

 

Says co‐author Stuart Pimm, Conservation Chair at Duke University, North Carolina, “We are committed

to finding the top priorities for species conservation and effective means to protect them — in the USA

and around the world.” Pimm and Jenkins are respectively the President and Vice President of the

conservation non‐profit SavingSpecies, an organization dedicated to helping communities around the

world to protect their many unique species.

 

Maps and results from the study are available at http://biodiversitymapping.org.

You can view the findings via open access at: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1418034112.

 

 

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