Climate change adaptation benefits of potential conservation partnerships


We evaluate the world terrestrial network of protected areas (PAs) for its partnership potential in responding to climate change. That is, if a PA engaged in collaborative, trans-boundary management of species, by investing in conservation partnerships with neighboring areas, what climate change adaptation benefits might accrue? We consider core tenets of conservation biology related to protecting large areas with high environmental heterogeneity and low climate change velocity and ask how a series of biodiversity adaptation indicators change across spatial scales encompassing potential PA and non-PA partners. Less than 1% of current world terrestrial PAs equal or exceed the size of established and successful conservation partnerships. Partnering at this scale would increase the biodiversity adaptation indicators by factors up to two orders of magnitude, compared to a null model in which each PA is isolated. Most partnership area surrounding PAs is comprised of non-PAs (70%), indicating the importance of looking beyond the current network of PAs when promoting climate change adaptation. Given monumental challenges with PA-based species conservation in the face of climate change, partnerships provide a logical and achievable strategy for helping areas adapt. Our findings identify where strategic partnering efforts in highly vulnerable areas of the world may prove critical in safeguarding biodiversity.


The purpose of protected areas (PAs) is to conserve species by preserving crucial habitats, but different socio-political boundaries separating individual PAs fragment and diminish their conservation value [13]. Species are now also moving their distributions in response to climate change [4], and while many static PAs are critically important for realizing these movements [5,6], they are not all equally well positioned to accommodate climate-induced changes to species’ geographic ranges [7,8]. Other areas beyond the current network of PAs are needed to ensure climate change adaptation [9,10]. Dynamic or floating PAs have been advanced as a potential solution [11], but implementation would require a fundamental paradigm shift in conservation planning, which we may not have time for given the rate and magnitude of climate change. An intermediate solution between expanding vs. moving PAs is to partner or coordinate conservation actions of existing PAs with surrounding areas, thus forming what we define as “conservation partnerships”, in order to increase the effective scale of conservation [12]. However, the benefits of such partnerships for promoting climate change adaptation have not been quantified globally, which limits discussion of their conservation utility and precludes identification of strategic partnering opportunities.

Partnerships stand to increase the conservation of species by ensuring that conservation management and planning occur at biologically relevant scales, a critical need in addressing the adverse effects of socio-political boundaries on conservation [2,13]. For example, partnerships may accommodate species movements in response to climate change by ensuring that emigrants from one area are accepted and conserved as immigrants in another area. In other situations partnerships may recognize potential sources of colonization and ensure they are being conserved in ways to support future emigration. Such actions are examples of a climate change adaptation strategy that aims to extend “best practice” principles of conservation biology [10].

When responding to rapid climate change, fine-filter (e.g., individual species) and coarse-filter (e.g., biodiversity) conservation targets often converge on similar conservation actions, and many “hybrid” approaches adopt a coarse-filter prioritization of locations to selectively invest in reducing species’ vulnerabilities to climate change [14]. In a coarse-filter approach, the probability of successfully matching or aligning management scales with those of biological scales, to conserve biodiversity, increases with area and environmental heterogeneity. Broader environmental gradients manifest over larger areas counter the area-heterogeneity tradeoff [15] and increase the likelihood that more species’ area and ecological niche requirements are met. Increasing climatic variation on the landscape also decreases the distance species must move in order to keep pace with climate change [16]. Public-private conservation cooperatives favor these factors (e.g., conservation easements for non-PAs). Additional policy mechanisms include both intra- [17] and inter-governmental (e.g., Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park) conservation coordination.

Despite such opportunities, real challenges and costs exist with partnering, especially over large areas with a large number of potential partners [18]. This quest for balancing conservation gains with practical challenges prompts four overarching questions: (i) what are the established and successful scales for partnering?, (ii) how could protected areas benefit from investing in such partnerships?, (iii) who should a protected area partner with in order to gain the benefits?, and (iv) to assist global prioritization of areas threatened by climate and other forms of environmental change, where would partnerships best add to the conservation of world biomes and ecoregions that vary in their level of development risk [19] and vulnerability to climate change [20,21]?

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