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The most biodiversity return on conservation dollars invested

Birds and Conservation Accounting

Ellie M. Cohen

Throughout the West, billions of dollars are currently being invested in habitat restoration and management to conserve biodiversity. As a result, we can point to large expanses of acres protected. But government agencies, foundations, and individual donors are asking: How do we know if our conservation investments are paying off biologically? How do we know that birds, mammals, fish, and other wildlife are better off? If these questions are not regularly addressed, then well-intentioned conservationists may not only waste scarce funds, but may inadvertently contribute to wildlife and ecosystem decline.

This Observer issue highlights how PRBO's bird and ecosystem research is helping to guide and evaluate habitat restoration, through studies of suites of bird species whose needs represent a broad range of habitat characteristics. The feedback that our findings provide-an accounting of conservation actions-helps managers learn and adapt, in order to more successfully conserve birds and other elements of the ecosystem.

The Nature Conservancy and others are now requiring the practice of conservation accounting to "audit" their on-the-ground efforts. They are regularly assessing species and ecosystems so that management actions can be revised adaptively.

A key component to this approach is conducting regular, standardized monitoring of wildlife and habitat. This is akin to having regular financial statements prepared according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), the accounting standards and procedures that corporations in the United States are expected to follow. Financial statements prepared according to GAAP provide a standard tool with which investors and independent interests evaluate and improve corporate bottom-line performance. Similarly, adaptive conservation planning (which includes conservation accounting) allows scientists, wildlife and habitat managers, policy makers, private interests, and the public to assess whether investments in conservation are improving the bottom line for wildlife.

Investors would flee from a corporation that did not provide regular, standardized measures of performance! The same should be true for our conservation investments. Conservation accounting has enormous economic, social, and biological implications. We would be irresponsible investors if we did not ensure that ecosystem "financials" were regularly produced and rigorously reviewed.

With reliable, up-to-date information, we can best determine how to improve management practices, to get the most biodiversity return on each conservation dollar invested. PRBO's bird expertise is helping to do just that!