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With the arrival of fall, I’m thinking about raincoats and umbrellas and walking in the rain under the canopy of the verdant Northwest forests. Conservationists too are often thinking about umbrellas.
They are understandably concerned about getting the most coverage for their efforts. One way to do this is to identify ecosystems in need of protection and then target large regions, so that all the inhabitants of a region are sheltered under the umbrella of the conservation plan. Another strategy is to identify an umbrella species and put in place protections that would benefit not just that threatened species, but also other species that co-occur with it. Given the common but unfortunate short-term approach to economic gain, the political landscape, and the competing uses for land, this umbrella approach can be an efficient strategy for protecting the most species possible with limited resources.
Caution should be taken with the umbrella species approach. Providing for the needs of one species may not necessarily provide protection to other species of concern. For instance, a research report found that protection of the California Gnatcatcher did not function to protect many lepidopteran (butterfly and moth) species in the area of coastal sage scrubs in California. However, a recent review analysis (Branton and Richardson 2011) found several positive outcomes and confirmed that umbrella species really can work to protect co-occurring species. Overall, the abundance and numbers of species were greater in areas that had designated umbrella species than in areas that did not. For bird enthusiasts, it is fortunate that avian species were shown to have the most potential as umbrella species. Here’s a few examples from recent studies:
Northern Bobwhites can act as an umbrella species for grassland and shrubland birds.
Efforts to protect the White-backed Woodpecker resulted in greater protection for saproxylic beetles (they depend on decaying wood) and other species that are associated with the broadleaved trees used by the woodpecker.
The American Woodcock was shown to be an effective umbrella species, especially for early-successional forest birds.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker acts as an umbrella species in the restoration of the Longleaf Pine ecosystem of the southeastern United States.
The Greater Sage-Grouse has been in the news lately as various agencies scrambled to provide some conservation measures for the species so that it would not need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Most people hope that the sage-grouse will act as an umbrella species so that safeguards put in place for the bird will help to protect all of the denizens of the fragile and disappearing habitat known as the sagebrush sea.
Many critics of protection for the Northern Spotted Owl point out that the owl population is doomed due to competition from the Barred Owl. They use this argument to claim that there is no point in protecting Spotted Owl habitat and to rationalize logging old-growth forests. (Of course, if the Spotted Owl was not dealing with severe habitat loss from the destruction of old-growth forest, the species would be better positioned to deal with the Barred Owl.) Although many of us may feel that this iconic species has inherent value in and of itself, the fact is that protections put in place for the Spotted Owl are about more than just this one species. The Spotted Owl acts as an umbrella species. These birds are representative of old-growth forests and all the species that make up and thrive in this important ecosystem: towering trees, salmon, invertebrates, bats and other small mammals, lichens, fungi, salamanders, Marbled Murrelets, and Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
It’s true that the owls’ specific habitat requirements do not precisely match all old-growth species of concern. For example, several of the threatened co-occurring species are aquatic. Solutions under the umbrella: Provide more comprehensive protection such that multiple species will benefit, or use an array of umbrella species to better cover different aspects of a given habitat. Either way, if somebody asks you why we should bother to care about the extinction of just one kind of bird, explain to them (patiently) that protecting that one species may help protect many other species, including ourselves, that are reliant on a healthy ecosystem.
Branton, M., and J. S. Richardson. 2011. “Assessing the Value of the Umbrella-Species Concept for Conservation Planning with Meta-Analysis.” Conservation Biology 25: 9–20.