EEB 5310: Conservation Biology

Spring 2023

Credits: 3

Instructor: Chris Elphick (email: chris.elphick[AT]

Meeting time: Tuesdays & Thursdays 2-3:15 pm

Location: HBL (Homer Babbidge Library) 2153

EEB 5310 is a graduate level course on conservation science. It is designed to build on the material presented in EEB 2208 (Introduction to Conservation Biology) and I will assume that people have had exposure to similar undergraduate-level material. My intent is for it to provide useful training for people who want to engage in “real-world” conservation, either as scientists or as practitioners (or both), rather than as simply an advanced science course.  Many of the scientific methods used in conservation biology are taught in other graduate classes (e.g., EEB 5050, EEB 5301, EEB 5872).

With this in mind, I have designed the course around a series of questions that I think are central to biodiversity conservation, and the role that science plays in informing conservation practice. Each week we will explore one of those questions. In the Tuesday session, I will lead with a mixture of presentation and discussion around the topic. In the Thursday session, students will work on some activity related to the practical application of the material. Each week I will also assign several readings that I consider to be important to understanding the development and current state of the field. These can be viewed as equivalent to the reading list I would give to a PhD student interested in conservation to read in preparation for a general exam. Ideally, these should be read before the Tuesday session; they should definitely be read before the Thursday.

Each week, students will be given a short written assignment related to the topic discussed in the Thursday class. This should be submitted by the start of the following Tuesday’s class. My goal is to return assignments within a week. Students can choose to submit a new version*, which should be accompanied by a response to each of my comments, following the format of a manuscript revision (I will explain this in class). At the end of the semester, students should submit a portfolio containing the final versions of each assignment; due on the last day of classes (Friday, 28th April  2023).

Grades will be assigned as follows:

50%: Submission of weekly assignments (5% each; students must submit at least 10 on time)

50%: Final portfolio (grades will be based on the final version* of each assignments; full grading rubric to follow)

*students can resubmit assignments as often as they like, up until the last day of classes

Schedule (subject to change)

Note: Although I have been teaching conservation biology to both undergraduates and graduate students for 20 years, this is the first time I have taught a general graduate-level course on the topic. Consequently, I would appreciate feedback throughout the course – especially if things are not working, please do not wait until the end of the semester to tell me.

WEEK 1: What is conservation biology?

The term conservation means different things to different people, and the field of conservation “biology” has broadened considerably since it arose as a distinct field. This week we’ll talk about what counts, what does not; how views of that have changed, and why; and about where, how, and by whom, conservation is put into practice.

  • Soulé, ME. 1985. What is conservation biology? BioScience 35:727-734. [link]
  • Caughley, G. 1994. Directions in conservation biology. Journal of Animal Ecology 63:215-244 [link]

WEEK 2: Where do we get information?

Effective conservation requires that we base decisions on good information. At the same time, many decisions need to be made in the near-term, without the benefits of perfect information or the time to conduct extensive or long-term studies. This week we’ll talk about ways to maximize the quality of the information we use to guide conservation practice.

  • Sutherland et al. 2019. Building a tool to overcome barriers in research-implementation spaces: The Conservation Evidence database. Biological Conservation 238:108199. [link]
  • Spend a little time reviewing the Conservation Evidence web site.
  • Martin et al. 2012. Eliciting expert knowledge in conservation science. Conservation Biology 26:29-38. [link]
  • Gadgil et al. 1993. Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. Ambio 22:151-156. [link]
  • Grames and Elphick. 2020. Use of study design principles would increase the reproducibility of reviews in conservation biology. Biological Conservation 241:108385. [link]

WEEK 3: Is it extinct (will go extinct)?

Much of conservation revolves around avoiding species extinctions, whether it be locally or globally, so the ability to determine whether something is extinct – or on a path to extinction – is pretty important. Actually making that determination, however, can be hard. This week we’ll talk about how people go about solving these problems, and why they matter.

  • Boakes et al. 2015. Inferring species extinction: the use of sighting records. Methods in Ecology and Evolution 6:678-687. [link]
  • Rout et al. 2010. Optimal allocation of conservation resources to species that may be extinct. Conservation Biology 24:1111–1118. [link]
  • Boyce. 1992. Population viability analysis. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 23:481-506. [link]
  • Chaudhary and Oli. 2020. A critical appraisal of population viability analysis. Conservation Biology 34:26-40. [link]

Some relevant tools:

WEEK 4: What threatens species?

Preventing extinction requires that we understand the causes. External threats, of course, are the ultimate problem, but traits of particular species also contribute to extinction risk. This week we’ll talk about the relative importance of different threats, the traits that make species vulnerable, how we can extrapolate from the species we know a lot about to those we don’t, and how we apply this general information to specific case studies.

  • Diamond. 1989. Overview of recent extinctions. Pages 37-41 in Conservation for the Twenty-First Century (Western and Pearl, eds). Oxford University Press.
  • Wilcove et al. 1998. Quantifying threats to imperiled species in the United States. BioScience 48:607-615. [link]
  • Brook et al. 2008. Synergies among extinction drivers under global change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 23:453-460. [link]
  • Caro et al. 2022. An inconvenient misconception: Climate change is not the principal driver of biodiversity loss. Conservation Letters 15:e12868. [link]
  • Chichorroa et al. 2019. A review of the relation between species traits and extinction risk. Biological Conservation. 237:220-229. [link]
  • Explore stats on threatened species on the IUCN website here.

WEEK 5: How many species are extinct (will go extinct)?

Much conservation focuses on individual species, but understanding the cumulative ways in which biodiversity is being affected by humans helps us understand the magnitude of the problem, and determine the most effective responses.  This week we’ll look at attempts to assess just how serious the situation is, and how patterns of endangerment vary among places, taxa, etc.

  • Barnosky et al. 2011. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471:51-57. [link]
  • Stork et al. 2010. Re-assessing current extinction rates. Biodiversity and Conservation 19:357-371. [link]
  • Pimm et al. 2014. The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection. Science 344. [link]
  • Lamkin and Miller. 2016. On the challenge of comparing contemporary and deep-time biological-extinction rates. BioScience 66:785–789. [link]
  • Liu et al. 2022. Undescribed species have higher extinction risk than known species. Conservation Letters 15:e12876. [link]
  • Explore the IUCN web site here.
  • Explore the US Endangered Species Act web site here.
  • Explore the Connecticut endangered species list here.

WEEK 6: How should we prioritize species?

The magnitude of biodiversity loss is such that it’s impossible to protect everything. Whether we act with intention or not, our decisions influence what gets protected and what does not. This week we’ll talk about ways to make those decisions, the types of criteria that are most informative, and the consequences of not making them.

  • Bottrill et al. 2008. Is conservation triage just smart decision making? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 23:649-654. [link]
  • Gerber. 2016. Conservation triage or injurious neglect in endangered species recovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 113:35633566. [link]
  • Mace et al. 2008. Quantification of extinction risk: IUCN’s system for classifying threatened species. Conservation Biology 22: 1424-1442. [link]
  • Arponen. 2012. Prioritizing species for conservation planning. Biodiversity & Conservation 21:875-893.
  • McGowan et al. 2020. Conservation prioritization can resolve the flagship species conundrum. Nature Communications 11:994. [link]

WEEK 7: How should we manage species?

Once we know what our priorities are, we need to decide what management will benefit a species. This week we’ll discuss general types of conservation management, how to decide what aspects of a species’ life-cycle should be the focus of management, how to prioritize among potential conservation actions, and how to assess whether management is working.

  • Hoffman et al. 2010. The impact of conservation on the status of the world’s vertebrates. Science 330:1503-1509. [link]
  • Scott et al. 2005. Recovery of imperiled species under the Endangered Species Act: The need for a new approach. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3:383-389. [link]
  • Akçakaya et al. 2018. Quantifying species recovery and conservation success to develop an IUCN Green List of Species   Conservation Biology 32:1128-1138. [link]
  • Grace et al. 2021. Testing a global standard for quantifying species recovery and assessing conservation impact. Conservation Biology 35:1833-1849. [link]
  • Martin et al. 2018. Prioritizing recovery funding to maximize conservation of endangered species. Conservation Letters 11:e12604. [link]

WEEK 8: How should we prioritize places?

Conservation is not always about species, and focusing attention on places is often seen as a more efficient way to achieve conservation goals. This week we’ll discuss ways that conserving places can provide short cuts to biodiversity protection, ways in which species can fall through the gaps when we take short cuts, and how we can prioritize place-based conservation planning to efficiently fill those gaps.

  • Prendergast et al. 1993. Rare species, the coincidence of diversity hotspots and conservation strategies. Nature 365:335-337. [link]
  • Hunter et al. 1988. Paleoecology and the coarse-filter approach to maintaining biological diversity. Conservation Biology 2:375-385. [link].
  • Margules and Pressey. 2000. Systematic conservation planning. Nature 405:243-253. [link]
  • Game et al. 2013.  Six common mistakes in conservation priority setting. Conservation Biology 27:480-485. [link]
  • Mair et al. 2021. A metric for spatially explicit contributions to science-based species targets. Nature Ecology & Evolution 5:836-844. [link]


WEEK 9: How should we manage places?

Management of sites has many similarities to management of species, but the place-based nature of the work requires explicit attention to the features of a location. This week we’ll start by discussing features of site-based management plans, talk about how management actions can be used most effectively to learn how to improve conservation gains, and, finally, consider the repercussions of not thinking of all management actions as experiments.

  • RSPB. Generic Site Management Planning Format and Guidance Notes. [link] (long but you can skip through many of the examples)
  • Walters and Holling. 1990. Large-scale management experiments and learning by doing. Ecology 71:2060-2068. [link]
  • Rist et al. 2013. Adaptive management: where are we now? Environmental Conservation 40:5-18. [link]
  • Ockendon et al. 2021. Effectively integrating experiments into conservation practice. Ecological Solutions and Evidence 2:e12069. [link]
  • Bernhardt et al. 2005. Synthesizing U.S. river restoration efforts. Science 308:636-637. [link]

WEEK 10: How much do we need?

The challenges of conservation are such that it never seems like enough can be protected. To prioritise across conservation goals, however, we have to know when to move on from one target to the next. This week we’ll talk about ways that we can determine when we’ve done enough to protect one thing and can move on to the next.

  • Shaffer, M. 1981. Minimum population sizes for species conservation. BioScience 31: 131-134. [link]
  • Traill et al. 2010. Pragmatic population viability targets in a rapidly changing world. Biological Conservation 143:28-34. [link]
  • Stephen et al. 2019. The limits to population density in birds and mammals. Ecology Letters 22:654-663. [link]
  • Dinerstein et al. 2019. A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets. Science Advances 5 : eaaw2869. [link]
  • Hannah et al. 2020. 30% land conservation and climate action reduces tropical extinction risk by more than 50%. Ecography 43:943-953. [link]
  • Tear et al. 2005. How much is enough? The recurrent problem of setting measurable objectives in conservation. BioScience 55:835-849. [link]

WEEK 11: What about ecosystem services?

Conservation is increasingly linked to human needs, as well as the protection of biodiversity in its own right. Ecosystem services are the things that we get from nature that have value to humans. This week, we’ll discuss how people have gone about identifying, classifying, and quantifying these services, how protection of services relates to other conservation goals, and how we can integrate services into conservation planning work.

  • Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. 2005. Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Synthesis. Island Press, Washington, DC. [link] – document is long read the Summary for Decision Makers and quickly skim the rest.
  • Turner and Daily. 2008. The ecosystem services framework and natural capital conservation. Environmental Resource Economics 39:25-35. [link]
  • Naidoo et al. 2008. Global mapping of ecosystem services and conservation priorities. PNAS 105 :9495-9500. [link] Be sure to look at the supplemental material.
  • Villarreal-Rosas et al. 2020. Advancing systematic conservation planning for ecosystem services. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 35:1129-1139. [link]

Some relevant tools:

WEEK 12: How do we balance conservation with other things?

Conservation, of course, is not the only thing that people care about, and effective conservation requires that we consider those other things. Conflicts arise in various arenas, ranging from energy production, commerce, and property rights, to food security, social justice, and human rights. This week we’ll talk about the full range of potential conflicts, and approaches that can be taken to ensure that conservation gains are pragmatic and effective.

  • McShane et al. 2011. Hard choices: Making trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and human well-being. Biological Conservation 144:966-972. [link]
  • Hirsch et al. 2011. Acknowledging conservation trade-offs and embracing complexity. Conservation Biology 25:259-264. [link]
  • Tallis et al. 2008.  An ecosystem services framework to support both practical conservation and economic development. PNAS 105:9457-9464. [link]
  • Williams et al. 2020. Minimising the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in an intact landscape under risk of rapid agricultural development. Environmental Research Letters 15:014001. [link]

WEEK 13: How do we pay for it all?

Conservation also comes with costs, both financial and non-monetary, and if we are to implement many actions we have to find ways to pay for them. This week we’ll talk about what different types of conservation costs, how we can maximize benefits relative to what we pay, and how the necessary funds can be generated.

  • White et al. 2022. What is the price of conservation? A review of the status quo and recommendations for improving cost reporting. BioScience 72:461-471. [link]
  • Waldron et al. 2013. Targeting global conservation funding to limit immediate biodiversity declines. PNAS 110:12144-12148. [link]
  • Larson et al. 2015. Constraints of philanthropy on determining the distribution of biodiversity conservation funding. Conservation Biology 30:206-215. [link]
  • Echols et al. 2019. Broadening conservation funding. Wildlife Society Bulletin 43:323-557. [link]
  • Hein et al. 2013. Payments for ecosystem services and the financing of global biodiversity conservation. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 5:87-93. [link]

WEEK 14: How do we convince others?

Ultimately, conservation only happens when society wants it to. That means that people need to understand the value of protecting biodiversity and agree that it’s valuable to them.  To achieve conservation then, requires that we identify those who have relevant influence, clearly communicate relevant science to those people, and work to ensure that there is effective follow-up. Conservation science only turns into conservation when we do these things well, and yet scientists often pay limited attention to these issues. To end the class, this week we’ll discuss how we can overcome that problem.

  • Bennett et al. 2017. Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation. Conservation Biology 31:56-66. [link]
  • Sterling et al. 2017. Assessing the evidence for stakeholder engagement in biodiversity conservation. Biological Conservation 209:159-171. [link]
  • McAfee et al. 2019. Everyone loves a success story: Optimism inspires conservation engagement. BioScience 69:274-281. [link]
  • Shreedhar. 2021. Evaluating the impact of storytelling in Facebook advertisements on wildlife conservation engagement: Lessons and challenges. Conservation Science and Practice 3:e534. [link]

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Other information

For information about EEB’s Joint B.S./M.S. degree program in Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, click here.

For information about the Society for Conservation Biology, click here.

For information on jobs in conservation biology, click here or here.

For information on jobs in wildlife biology, click here.

For additional job information, compiled by the EEB department click here.