November 12, 2020
Morgan Phillips Taft

Biodiversity is critical to the health and viability of natural systems. It also brings color and depth to the world. You can see it in the rainbow of marine fish weaving through coral reefs and hear it in the symphony of chirps and croaks deep in a forest. You can feel it on the smooth, fuzzy, waxy or prickly grasses in a field. 

Species have evolved over millions of years to coexist and support each other’s survival. 

lichens and forget me knots in Alaska
E. Mesner/NPS

But loss of biodiversity increasingly threatens the stability of our planet. We are losing species in ecosystems worldwide and with each loss we are becoming a less resilient socio-ecological community. We are dangerously close to a sixth mass extinction that’s also going to affect us. 

Biodiversity is also an integral part of human wellbeing and physical health—made clear in the recent COVID-19 pandemic. By removing species’ habitats or exploiting natural resources, humans create more situations for incidental wildlife interactions as society pushes farther into natural environments. As a recent global science synthesis found, “Escape from the Pandemic Era requires policy options that foster transformative change towards preventing pandemics…[including] policies to reduce the role of land-use change in pandemic emergence [and]… to reduce pandemic emergence related to the wildlife trade.” By destroying biodiversity, we’re also losing direct and indirect connections to species that have yet to be discovered: fungi that treat illnesses, plants that clean the air, animals that keep disease vectors like ticks in check and more. The food we grow, the landscapes we love and the air we breathe all depend on biodiversity.

Biodiversity in Glacier National Park's Alpine region

This has been a milestone year on many accounts, with many major scientific reports and papers reassessing the state of the biodiversity crisis and potential pathways forward. Here are some highlights:
At the United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity summit in September, the committee determined that none of the 2010 Aichi Biodiversity Targets have been met. These targets laid out important stepping stones in addressing the biodiversity crisis that should be achieved by 2020. Such topics include neutralizing pollution of our waterways and air systems, preventing the overharvest of resources and mitigating climate change. However, the strategic goal which has been the most successful is: “Creating biodiversity awareness in order to mobilize government and social action.” Creating awareness for action is a critical component, but awareness isn’t enough on its own: Continuing down the current path without action could lead to a loss of up to 1 million species by the end of the century.

Laysan albatross chick and mom
Dan Clark/USFWS

World Wildlife Fund’s 2020 Living Planet Report showed an average drop of 33% in the population sizes of North American mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles since 1970 and a 68% decline globally. Up to one-fifth of the world’s species are at risk of extinction this century due to climate change alone, with some of the highest rates of loss anticipated in biodiversity “hotspots.” These are alarming findings, but it is not too late to act. 

To make sure we tackle biodiversity loss head on and succeed, habitat protection, active management and wildlife conservation actions are imperative. Solutions are out there, and Defenders is a staunch supporter of placing a high priority on protection and recovery of natural areas and imperiled species. 

Two red wolves in snow
Rebecca Bose/Wolf Conservation Center

There is strong evidence that conservation actions work, but major action is needed and quickly. A September report in Conservation Letters showed that global conservation action prevented up to 32 bird and 16 mammal extinctions since 1993. Two of these are U.S.-based species that Defenders of Wildlife has poured great resources into protecting: the red wolf and the black-footed ferret. Our work to recover the red wolf in North Carolina since the mid-1980s has included community outreach, state and federal legislative advocacy, legal action and on-the-ground support for reintroductions and relocations of wolves. On the Great Plains, Defenders is active in the fight to recover the black-footed ferret. As an official member of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Black-footed Ferret Recovery Implementation Team, we work with governments, nonprofits and private landowners to maintain and expand recovery sites for the critically endangered species. The Conservation Letters paper concluded that extinction rates would have been up to 4.2 times greater without conservation action. 

Curious black-footed ferret
J Michael Lockhart/USFWS

The 30x30 framework, a goal to protect a minimum of 30% of the world’s land and waters by 2030, can help to set us on the right track. Defenders’ report identified places where US protected areas overlap endangered species habitats and carbon-rich areas. We found that only 12% of US lands are protected and very few of our biodiversity hotspots fall within them. This result was similar to a global analysis recommending a “Global Safety Net” that identified 50% of the planet that needs protection for biodiversity and climate. Thankfully, many places overlap: 92% of areas needed for conserving biodiversity will also be important for offsetting climate change.  

Wetland of Okefenokee NWR
Michael Lusk

As we set course for protecting 30%, it is important that the areas we choose to conserve will protect imperiled species now and in the future. That means including considerations of habitat connectivity and climate adaptation to help biodiversity flourish. For example, a Defenders analysis found 513 species listed under the Endangered Species Act live or depend on 444 national wildlife refuges. These species are often migratory. Driven by the instinctive need to disperse, they are exposed to many threats and subpar habitat outside the bounds of protected areas. Preserving key wildlife corridors, especially as climate change shifts species’ ranges, will help wildlife navigate between habitats, contributing to genetic diversity. Additionally, strategic restoration of subpar habitats could help us make significant strides in conserving biodiversity and preventing extinctions. 

A global study in Nature found that restoring only 15% of key degraded lands could avoid 60% of expected extinctions and sequester 30% of the total CO2 increase in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Another Nature  study explored a number of land-use scenarios to assess whether conservation and restoration can be effectively employed to reverse biodiversity declines: “If we decide to increase the extent of land under conservation management, restore degraded land and generalize landscape-level conservation planning, biodiversity trends from habitat conversion could become positive by the mid-21st century.” 

Leking Greater sage-grouse and pronghorn male, Northeastern Nevada
Tatiana Gettelman/USGS

One of the keys to finding this balance will be consciously coordinating efforts in conservation and spatial planning to maximize benefits to humans and wildlife. Sometimes people worry about the cost of conservation, but there are two realities we often don’t consider. First, our real investment in conservation is paltry, especially given the benefits society gets from nature—estimated at $9 trillion per year for the U.S. and Canada alone. Worldwide, the Financing Nature report by the Paulson Institute earlier this year estimated between $700-900 billion per year is needed. Much of this amount can be accounted for through better allocation of existing funds—such as reducing harmful agricultural subsidies—and promoting “green” investments. 

Second and more importantly, the benefits significantly outweigh the costs by 5-to-1, according to a report on the economic implications of protecting 30% of nature. Similarly, an assessment of marine protected areas expansion found benefits outweighed costs by as much as 2.7-to-1. 

Coral reef, Palmyra Atoll
Andrew S. Wright/USFWS

Last, we can’t pretend that not investing isn’t without cost: The World Economic Forum earlier this year released a report finding that biodiversity loss is one of the top three threats to the global economy. The science increasingly points to the importance of investing in conservation not just for wildlife and habitats but, ultimately, for humanity.

Biodiversity is the lifeblood of our planet. We cannot survive without it. Implementing strategic goals for conserving imperiled habitats and protecting and restoring species must be the way forward. And these actions cannot wait. Without immediate action, we will lose our chance to stop this cascade of deterioration in nature.


Morgan Phillips Taft

Morgan Phillips Taft

Digital Writing Intern

Morgan Phillips Taft is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University pursuing a degree in International Affairs with a focus on International Environmental Studies


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