Define Targets, Threats and Land Values

Conservation targets

It is critical to clearly define and articulate the values of the land that are important. These values will often be closely aligned to why the land was identified as important, or acquired, in the first place, but there may be additional values, including species, ecological and human communities, ecological processes, or land uses that are critical to important values. The values are the central players in the statements of Goals.

Is the land valued as habitat for a particular species or biological community? Or, is the protection of green space, a healthy watershed or pristine “viewshed” of paramount importance? The inherent value of the land depends on the needs and philosophies of the organizations and communities that own and manage the land. These values are often described as conservation targets (see below).  They may also include other related, or ancillary values.  For example, a conservation project may have as a fundamental value a particular wetland species.  However, it may also be important to identify flood control and wetland function as key conservation targets.

A conservation target is the biological attribute or value of the land that is the focus of a conservation project.  It may be a species, biological community, ecological process, or socio-ecological value such as open space.  There may be more than one target for any project.

Threats to conservation targets

In addition to identifying conservation targets, it is also important to identify the threats to those targets. By doing so, you will also begin the process of defining the types of management actions that are necessary to achieve success. The Conservation Measures Partnership defines a Threat as “any human activity or process that has caused, is causing or may cause the destruction, degradation and/or impairment of biodiversity and natural processes.” However, we expand this definition to note that natural processes can threaten the conservation values identified by an organization -- for example, open space values can be threatened by normal plant succession and woody encroachment.

Definition of a threat
An activity or process that has caused, is causing or may cause the destruction, degradation and/or impairment of biodiversity and natural processes.

The potential threats to conservation targets are many, and the general categories of threats discussed on LandScope America are outlined here. Such a “taxonomy of threats” is a valuable guide to understanding how to preserve land into the future. More detailed, or simply different, taxonomies also exist such as the one mentioned above developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership, which is used by The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, and others. 

Threats may include pollution or development pressure, alteration or suppression of ecological processes, normal ecological succession, the spread of invasive or noxious species, and even climate change.  These threats and their associated impacts affect all conservation projects regardless of their size.  

Any given conservation project will not experience all of these threats, and others may experience threats not included in the various taxonomies. However, each relevant threat needs to be identified and related to the appropriate conservation targets. 

The list included here is a beginning guide to the critical process of identifying individual threats to conservation targets at specific sites. It should be used as a starting point and not an exhaustive compendium. With specific conservation values (i.e., targets) in hand, identify what factors or processes could affect their condition and sustainability. Once specific threats are clarified strategies can be developed to address and manage them. Definitions and brief discussion of types of threats to conservation targets follow, but explore Threats and Issues for a more in-depth discussion.

Habitat Loss

For many species the most basic threat is simple loss of habitat – their required habitat is converted into something else.  But habitat loss can be subtle.  In modern, human-dominated environments natural habitats are often fragmented into small patches of native community surrounded by “non habitat”.  These are sometime referred to as habitat islands.  Habitat fragmentation can create problems for animals that do not want to or cannot cross areas they perceive as unsuitable habitat.  Edge effects are the impact of a disturbed habit bordering a natural habitat.  The effects can include spread of invasive species, significant change in environmental conditions, or increased predation. 

It has been documented that these edge effects can extend hundreds of meters into a natural area.  Thus, in small preserves the problem of “edge effects” may be significant and extend throughout the area.  Both fragmentation and edge effects are ways in which habitat that seems suitable for the organisms is in fact degraded in subtle ways.

An additional consideration is that ecological communities are often maintained by natural processes (e.g., fire, flooding, or herbivory).  Their suppression due to development or other human use can lead to a change in community character, and possibly the eventual loss of species dependent upon specific ecological processes for survival.

Ecological communities naturally change in a successional process.  Herbaceous communities tend to transform into forested ones.  These naturally occurring changes can threaten conservation values at specific sites and should be considered and addressed.

Biological harvesting can be valuable activities that support conservation efforts, but they can also disrupt natural ecological processes and can contribute to habitat loss for certain species.

Development Pressure

The construction of houses, buildings, roads, power lines, rail rights of way and other transportation features can impact conservation areas in a variety of ways.  For example, they can be avenues of exotic species invasion, or sources of contaminants such as chemical or noise pollution.  Changes in recreational land use can also have important consequences for conservation targets.

Air pollution, changes in water quality, and other sources of pollution can impact biodiversity.  Often these impacts come from off-site and some distance, where land managers have little control or influence.

Water (Use and Quality)

Competition for water is a rapidly emerging problem throughout the world, including the United States. Growing communities in arid areas thirst for water.  Recreational, agricultural and energy needs often require water diversions that contribute to habitat loss for particular species.  Water pollution and water quality issues are also important.  All of these issues can be important considerations as threats in conservation projects.

Energy Development

Mining or drilling activities can cause various disturbances, including soil loss, invasion by exotic species, and pollution.

Climate Change

Climate change is not generally a process that land managers can control at individual locations.  However, it will be increasingly important for them to anticipate how changing climate and weather patterns may affect local biodiversity.  For example, in the rocky mountain west, western pine beetle populations were controlled by frigid winter temperatures.  As the climate has changed, the winters have become milder, allowing for greater overwinter survival of the beetles and resulting in ever increasing rates of tree mortality. 

Invasive Species 

Spread of exotic species

Introduced weeds and animals can wreak havoc on an unprotected natural area. For example Phragmites and Purple Loosestrife may convert a native wetland into a mono-specific patch of weeds in short order.  Similarly, garlic mustard displaces native spring wildflowers in eastern forests. Zebra mussel, a Eurasian species introduced to the U.S. in 1988 causes huge problems in fresh water systems. Often these threats go unnoticed, or are ignored, until they have become unmanageable.

Spread of native noxious species

Problem species are not only introduced exotics. Native species can also create severe problems for land managers and negatively impact conservation targets. For example, White Tailed Deer populations in the eastern US, are exploding because of a lack of hunting and the abundance of the forest edge habitats that characterize suburbs. Although it is a native species, unchecked numbers of these animals can severely damage forests by completely consuming all native forbs and tree seedlings.

Loss of genetic diversity

Conservation of species can be undermined when populations become so small that genetic diversity is lost. This can be especially problematic in mammal and bird populations.

Scale and geography

In addition to a clear understanding of the potential threats to the identified targets, an appreciation of the appropriate spatial scale is important to any discussion of biodiversity and conservation.  The scale of conservation action depends on a variety of factors: the size of the conserved area, the geographic extent of the targets and threats relative to the conservation project, and the scale of management actions.  Both the relevant definitions of targets and the constellation of potential management actions available are strongly affected by the scale of the project.  And therefore, our view of conservation success or failure will depend on whether we are concerned with a large or a small area. 

For example, consider the case of a target population in a small area.  What if the population disappeared from the conservation project area, but thrived in areas around it?  Both the issue of scale and conservation context are important factors in this situation.

Identify Conservation Goals and Objectives


Sound Science LLC assists many land management organizations with site conservation planning, goal setting, land management, and measures of success.

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