prairie dog

Which At-Risk Species Can We Afford to Save?

Hundreds of species are at risk in Canada, but funds are limited. A new mathematical tool could help maximize our conservation efforts.


There is a region of southwestern Saskatchewan known as the South of the Divide that’s home to species ranging from northern leopard frogs to black-tailed prairie dogs — but with an increasing human presence in the area, how long will it be before these species can no longer call the area home?

With hundreds of species currently listed as threatened, endangered, or extirpated in Canada by the Species at Risk Act, regions like the South of the Divide are at greater risk than ever before. And with insufficient funds available to carry out recovery plans for every species, how can agencies tasked with recovering these species decide where to direct their efforts?

In a recent case study published in Conservation Letters, a team of researchers from the University of British Columbia, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and other Canadian institutions sought to answer exactly that. Through the use of a new mathematical tool that determines how to prioritize recovery funding to maximize species conservation, the authors showed how limited conservation dollars can be turned into a concrete plan of action.

Species at risk recovery is failing in Canada

“The motivation to develop the tool was in response to the failure of species at risk recovery in Canada, and around the world,” says Tara Martin, professor in the Department of Forest & Conservation Sciences at UBC and lead author of the study. “We’re in a situation where we have far more species at risk than resources to address the recovery of all those species.”

The tool is called Priority Threat Management, or PTM. It works by considering the benefit, cost, and feasibility of implementing a conservation strategy, to determine the likelihood of achieving that strategy’s species recovery goals.

The data for the tool come from a variety of sources, most often knowledge holders in the region where the tool is being applied. Martin explains that the first step of implementing PTM is to invite these knowledge holders — scientists, land managers, and Indigenous elders, among others — to an expert elicitation workshop. The data gathered during this workshop are then used by PTM to determine which conservation strategies should be prioritized.

PTM has been used this way across Australia and New Zealand. Now, with the Canadian government’s release of an action plan for species recovery in the South of the Divide, Martin has for the first time had a chance to apply the tool a little closer to home.

Prioritizing actions to save the South of the Divide

In their analysis, Martin and colleagues focused on 15 species at risk in the region. By applying PTM to the hundreds of actions suggested in the Canadian government’s action plan, they came up with a realistic strategy that gives 13 of these species a greater than 50% chance of meeting their recovery objectives over the next 20 years. Their plan required only five of the suggested actions, taking advantage of the fact that several strategies complemented each other.

Without management, only two of the species were likely to exceed the 50% threshold.

The case study highlights the importance of considering the cost, benefit, and feasibility of management action plans. These plans often don’t contain estimates of the resources required to implement all of their suggestions, but Martin stresses that future management plans need to include a realistic, prioritized set of actions.

Conservation across the country

Now, Martin is using PTM in the Fraser River Estuary in British Columbia. She is ultimately interested in figuring out how PTM can be applied on a wider scale.

“How much would it cost to save all species at risk in Canada, and what are the priority management actions to do that?” she wonders.

“That’s where I would like to see this go: a plan of action for recovery for all our species at risk across Canada.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.