When do conservation planning methods deliver? Quantifying the consequences of uncertainty

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Langford, William T., Gordon, Ascelin, and Bastin, Lucy

The rapid global loss of biodiversity has led to a proliferation of systematic conservation planning methods. In spite of their utility and mathematical sophistication, these methods only provide approximate solutions to real-world problems where there is uncertainty and temporal change. The consequences of errors in these solutions are seldom characterized or addressed. We propose a conceptual structure for exploring the consequences of input uncertainty and oversimplified approximations to real-world processes for any conservation planning tool or strategy. We then present a computational framework based on this structure to quantitatively model species representation and persistence outcomes across a range of uncertainties. These include factors such as land costs, landscape structure, species composition and distribution, and temporal changes in habitat. We demonstrate the utility of the framework using several reserve selection methods including simple rules of thumb and more sophisticated tools such as Marxan and Zonation. We present new results showing how outcomes can be strongly affected by variation in problem characteristics that are seldom compared across multiple studies. These characteristics include number of species prioritized, distribution of species richness and rarity, and uncertainties in the amount and quality of habitat patches. We also demonstrate how the framework allows comparisons between conservation planning strategies and their response to error under a range of conditions. Using the approach presented here will improve conservation outcomes and resource allocation by making it easier to predict and quantify the consequences of many different uncertainties and assumptions simultaneously. Our results show that without more rigorously generalizable results, it is very difficult to predict the amount of error in any conservation plan. These results imply the need for standard practice to include evaluating the effects of multiple real-world complications on the behavior of any conservation planning method.


Langford, W. T., A. Gordon, and L. Bastin. 2009. When do conservation planning methods deliver? Quantifying the consequences of uncertainty. Ecological Informatics 4:123–135.