By Harold N Eyster, a Gund Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Vermont |

In short, yes. Coupled with a framing that highlights the interdependent relationships between people and a species, evidence of population differentiation can be a powerful motivator for individual efforts to conserve or restore nature.

Just last week, a Mexican fish that went extinct in the wild in 2003 was reintroduced back into its ancestral habitat. Other endangered species are also doing well—one of the rarest birds in North America, the Kirtland’s Warbler, has seen its population increase by over 1000% since 1970.

But whilst many endangered species have been making a comeback thanks to conservation efforts, widespread and common species have been rapidly dwindling.

So-called Common Grackles have declined drastically over the last five decades, as shown by Breeding Bird Survey data from the US states where they are most abundant. Graph from Horsley and Ward, 2021, Avian Cons. & Eco. [waiting for working link from author]

And it’s easy to understand why. If there are only a few individuals left of a species, saving those individuals and restoring their habitat seems important and worthy of concerted effort and investment. But if there are millions of individuals of a species, it can feel overwhelming and ineffective to try and conserve them, even if they’re declining precipitously Meanwhile, evidence points to a stark decline in the overall abundance of wild animals—e.g., North American birds. Indeed, all wild mammals and birds together are now substantially outweighed by human beings or our livestock.

These declines matter. Widespread species are the ones that most of us see at our birdfeeders, in our rivers, and in our cities. They create important relationships between people and nature. They also determine what our ecosystems look like and how they function.

American tree sparrows are widespread and abundant, but their population has declined by more than 50% since 1970 according to Partners in Flight analysis. Artwork: © Harold Eyster.

Can these declines be reversed? Is there a way to motivate people to conserve declining widespread species just as they would rare species?

In a paper just out in Biological Conservation, Paige Olmsted, Robin Naidoo, Kai Chan, and I investigated this question and found that yes, people can be motivated to conserve widespread species.

We started by thinking about the relationships that people have with rare species, and trying to understand how these same relationships might be engendered with widespread species. To interrogate these relationships, we relied on the concept of relational values, which  encompasses the preferences, principles, virtues, and values associated with relationships.

What used a relational values framework to understand how relationships with widespread, common species (like the American Tree Sparrow, bottom) might become more like relationships with rare species (like the Kirtland’s Warbler, top). Artwork: © Harold Eyster.

We hypothesized that people would be more motivated to conserve a widespread species when it is reframed as a genetically unique population that has an interdependent relationship with people (i.e., people impact them and they impact people).

We tested this hypothesis on a widespread but declining species — the rainbow trout. This species’ native range extends across the Western US and Canada,  but it is threatened by  recreational angling, climate change, water pollution, roads, agriculture, forestry, and mining.

Stylistic depiction of rainbow trout and DNA. Artwork: © Harold Eyster.

We surveyed about 650 British Columbians and then used statistical models borrowed from economics to test our hypothesis.

We found that highlighting both the genetic uniqueness of a rainbow trout population and its interdependent relationships with humans —-i.e., trout affect humans, and humans affect trout—-substantially increased people’s willingness to donate to trout habitat conservation. Here’s the exact text we used to highlight these interdependent relationships:

Our results show how an abundant resource—genetic data—might be used to finally halt the declines of widespread species. Although our study only focused on rainbow trout, we suspect that conservationists might be able to motivate conservation of other widespread species by highlighting independent relationships with genetically distinct populations.

For example, the Varied Thrush is a widespread species of bird that lives along the Pacific Coast. Unfortunately, window collisions and other anthropogenic threats have caused it to decline by more than 60% over the last five decades. However, the species does exhibit genetic variation across its range. Perhaps highlighting the genetic distinctiveness of populations near different cities might encourage people to build more bird-friendly windows and plant bird-friendly vegetation, such as berry-laden mountain-ash trees.

Varied Thrushes have declined by more than 60% over the last five decades. Artwork: © Harold Eyster.

Our results also suggest that it’s not just so-called ‘environmentalists’ or people who have close relationships with animals that are motivated to conserve species. Indeed, people who regularly spend time fishing were not more willing to donate to conservation. Instead, acknowledging the interconnectedness of humans and a species can motivate many types of people to become conservationists.

It’s heartwarming to hear stories of species brought back from the brink; hopefully 2022 also brings stories of widespread species rebounding.