Facing Extinction II: Making hard decisions

Sacramento perch is an example of ‘gray’ extinction because it has been extirpated from its native habitats in the Central Valley. It exists only in a diminishing number of places where it has been transplanted. Photo is by Chris Miller of the Contra Costa Vector Control Agency and is from the CalFish website.

by Jason Baumsteiger and Peter Moyle

In part I of our blog, we projected a bleak future for many freshwater fishes, especially in California. Some difficult decisions will need to be made to prevent extinctions or to verify them.  However these decisions will rely on answers to one sweeping question: When is a species, in fact, extinct?

Some may argue this is a simple black/white or presence/absence question. But is it really? What if the species’ existence depends completely on humans? What if it no longer exists in its natural habitat or in the wild? What if it has been hybridized or genetically engineered? In such cases, is it fair to say this species is still the same as its wild predecessor?

In our recent paper, we attempted to tackle these questions and provide an honest, although imperfect, way to assess extinction. The first involves accepting that “grey extinction” exists. This is an area between formal threatened/endangered status and global extinction, where a species is in limbo – it is partially extinct. We know this sounds weird because under traditional usage extinction is an all or nothing proposition. However, there are in fact grey areas; they fall into five categories. Each represents ways a species may be partially extinct. These categories are by no means exhaustive, but do represent a reasonable framework where partial extinction can be examined closely. We look at these categories through the eyes of biologists trying to conserve species through either a single-species or a multi-species approach. We then weave these ideas into a decision tree to help managers recognize fishes (or any organism for that manner) which have reached “grey extinction” limbo.

Categorizing “grey extinction”

Mitigated extinction- This category represents the many ways that a species can become dependent on humans for its existence. The formal term is conservation-reliant but it just means that if we are not there to provide support, the species will quickly become globally extinct. Actions might include protection from predators, protection of habitat or even finding mating partners. Winter-run Chinook are a good example: they depend on humans for spawning habitat and early life-history protection (food, predator and disease avoidance). Without human intervention, winter-run Chinook (thanks to Shasta Dam) would quickly cease to exist.

Regional extinction – Here we are talking about what happens when a significant portion of a species’ range has been lost. Now you might say, isn’t that just extirpation? To which we would say, not necessarily. Regional extinction applies when a very distinct portion of that range is lost, such as a region occupied by a distinct population segment (DPS) or an evolutionarily significant unit (ESU). In California, a good example is the isolated population of bull trout that once existed in the McCloud River, which became extinct in the 1970s. The species is still widely distributed and a threatened species in much of its range, but it is now absent from California.

Native-range extinction – As the name implies, this is a species which no longer exists in its natural range but may exist elsewhere (say a reservoir somewhere). So while there are “wild” fish swimming about, they are not in the area in which they originally evolved. In California, Sacramento perch have disappeared from their native habitats in Central California. However, they were planted around the West as a gamefish that could live in alkaline waters, developing large populations in places such as Crowley Reservoir in the Owens Valley or Pyramid Lake in Nevada.

Fish were caught in Abbott’s Lagoon Pt Reyes. Photo by Peter Moyle.

Wild extinction – This category is one step further than native-range extinction. Now the species only exists as a captive population (think hatchery or zoo). Delta smelt are dangerously close to falling into this category.

Apparent extinction – This category is the final “holding pattern” category when we think the species is globally extinct because we cannot find it anywhere. However, we want to wait to be sure. We talked briefly about this in part I of the blog. Right now the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) tells us to wait 50 years before declaring extinction, but there is a big difference between species with 1 year vs. 25 year generation times. Therefore we propose a waiting period based on generation time: 1-5 years = 10 generations; 5+ years = 5 generations.

Single-species vs. Multi-species approaches

We have determined it is time to act. But how best to do so?  The current agency approach is based on single species (per the Endangered Species Act). As a species becomes endangered, we start doing everything we can to conserve that species, one species at a time. But as we mentioned, the endangered list is growing quickly.  These approaches will become cost-prohibitive as the list gets too big. And by law, work must continue until that species is “recovered”, which could essentially mean forever for many species. Instead we argue for taking a multi-species approach to conservation. Go in and restore the original habitat (or at least a reasonable portion of it). This saves both the species in peril AND all the species that naturally coexists with it. This might incur a huge cost initially, but if done right would be a one-time cost that returns native fishes to their native habitat in abundance. In other words, restore the system not just the numbers.

It is very important to note that we are NOT against human involvement in the saving of species. By no means! We are all for it. Some action is better than doing nothing. We simply want to stress the need to engage in conservation strategies that keep natural species in their natural habitats, where they can undergo natural selection for as long as possible. Administering artificial selection to save them, putting the species into “grey extinction,” should be a last resort. And we felt it is important to distinguish between those species which have been subject to such methods (artificial selection) from those which have not. The latter would seem to have a greater chance of survival in the wild. More information improves decision-making.

When we put these ideas together, we generated a decision tree to help navigate the many categories and approaches that one might take in assessing extinction (Fig. 1). This tree starts with the basic, but big, assumption that our society really wants to prevent more extinctions. Again our purpose is to show the pathways from traditional threatened/endangered listings to global extinction – or as the case may be, to  conservation successes. Our decision tree has checkpoints throughout which would be a great place for biologists and stakeholders to sit down and assess progress and future approaches. We recognize that this is not an all-inclusive look at all things extinction, but we do see it as a starting point to better management of species at every level.

Fig 1. Decision tree assessing extinction progression. Checkpoints are decision nodes and boxes are extinction categories. After checkpoint #2, two trajectories are indicated, one reflecting decreasing habitat availability (left) and the second reflecting increasing conservation-reliance and decreasing habitat availability (right). From Baumsteiger and Moyle (2017).

In an era where the integrity of science is being questioned, we can no longer afford to hide these facts and avoid these difficult questions. Transparency is paramount. People need to know how complex the issues are and what we are facing. Our paper is an attempt to meet this growing need, to lay our cards on the table to show what managers are up against when it comes to assessing extinction. Regardless of politics, we are all part of and depend on the same global ecosystem. How long should we allow species to drop out of that system before we become concerned? Extinction is very real, very permanent and the numbers in the gray area are increasing. The time is now to focus on these species before the slide accelerates. After all, decisions to save species from now on will only become increasingly harder.

Jason Baumsteiger is a Center for Watershed Sciences post-doctoral research fellow with Drs. Peter Moyle and Mike Miller. Peter Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. 

Further reading

Baumsteiger, J. and P.B. Moyle 2017. Assessing extinction. Bioscience 67: 357-366.

This entry was posted in Biology, Conservation, Fish, Planning and Management and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Facing Extinction II: Making hard decisions

  1. Jai Rho says:

    Any type or category of extinction is an extremely important factor to consider in analyzing environmental conditions and ecosystems. Are there similar types or categories of new species that adapt to changed conditions as natural habitat?


  2. Joseph Rizzi says:

    Extinction is all living species gone. Your issue is a legal one, which is why you have various types based on legal conflicts and actions. Example: if Delta Smelt is legally categorized as extinct then pumps are not stopping to protect them.


  3. Greg Giusti says:

    I appreciated the perspective of the last two comments, as they are both correct. As we try to articulate the nuances of existence, words will become more and more a pawn in the debate addressing limited and declining resources. Undoubtedly, various interests will twist the nuances of “extinction” to meet their particular needs.


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