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More than half of ecosystem types in North & South America fall short of global conservation goals

 A study conducted by NatureServe and published in PLOS ONE yesterday documents the loss of ecosystem diversity across the Americas and that terrestrial ecosystems are widely underrepresented in protected areas. The study identifies areas where conservation efforts could be directed to meet international conservation targets.

The study clearly shows that, over the past few centuries, ecosystem conversion has been concentrated in agriculturally productive and accessible lands throughout the Western Hemisphere. Using two levels of classification and description of terrestrial ecosystems, we found that a staggering 70% of ecological systems1 in North America and over 50% of vegetation macrogroups2 across the hemisphere do not reach protection targets set under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). According to the IUCN Red List of Ecosystems, nearly a third of these ecological systems and fully a fifth of vegetation macrogroups score as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.

“From this study it becomes clear that our investments in protected areas have been skewed to minimize conflict with economic development. By recognizing and conserving all natural types of ecosystems, we conserve the natural setting for species to survive and evolve.” – Pat Comer, Chief Ecologist, NatureServe

Using advanced modeling techniques and machine learning, our ecologists mapped both the current and historical extent of several hundred ecosystem types at fine thematic and spatial resolutions, allowing us to rigorously document long-term ecosystem loss to land conversion, and to much more precisely determine how well current protected areas represent ecosystem diversity. This is especially important when considering the protection of threatened ecosystems that have already experienced significant loss, like grasslands and savannas across North and South America or the iconic longleaf pine woodlands of the Southeast United States.

These results provide increasingly precise direction as to where decision-makers should concentrate conservation actions to protect ecological diversity, which is essential to safeguarding ecosystem services, keeping common species common, and securing endangered ecosystems in the wake of the ongoing extinction crisis.

“The analyses in this study – covering nearly a quarter of the earth’s land surface — allow us to better understand our impact on nature and give us a way to hold humanity accountable for securing ecosystem diversity as required under international agreements. It also points us toward places where we should target conservation to minimize extinction, secure critical ecosystem services, and achieve a greater degree of sustainability.” – Sean O’Brien, Ph.D., President and CEO, NatureServe

Global targets for representing ecosystem diversity in protected areas range from 17% (under the Aichi Targets of the CBD) to as much as 50% of ecosystem extent. 41% of land mapped here (shown in red shades) is less than 10% protected at the macrogroup level – falling well short of the 17% conservation goal agreed upon under the CBD.

NatureServe’s President and CEO, Dr. Sean O’Brien, as well our Chief Ecologist, Patrick Comer (the study’s lead author), are both available to discuss the findings, which reflect years of ecosystem mapping and classification efforts by our world-renowned ecologists. You can learn more about NatureServe’s work to protect biodiversity here, and more specifically about the publication and related map products here.

About Us: For nearly 50 years, NatureServe has been the authoritative source for biodiversity data throughout the Western Hemisphere. To protect threatened biodiversity, NatureServe works with nearly 100 organizations and over 1,000 conservation scientists to collect, analyze, and deliver standardized biodiversity information, providing comprehensive spatial data to meet both regulatory and conservation needs. NatureServe and its network partners develop and manage data for over 100,000 species and ecosystems, answering fundamental questions about what exists, where it is found, and how it is doing.

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