Refugee species: which historic baseline should inform conservation planning?


  • Author contributions: T.K. and V.C.R. conceived the ideas and led the writing; T.H., J.O. and G.S. contributed to the writing.

Correspondence: Tobias Kuemmerle, Geography Department, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany.



Understanding species' historical ranges can provide important information for conservation planning in the face of environmental change. Cromsigt et al. (this issue) comment on our recent European bison (Bison bonasus) range reconstruction, suggesting that bison were already 8000 years ago a refugee species (i.e. restricted to marginal habitat due to past human pressure) and that species distribution models (SDM) are generally of limited use for refugee species conservation. While we welcome this discussion, we find no evidence for the claim that human pressure prior to 8000 BP determined where bison occurred. More importantly, as human pressure is generally high and increasing, attempts to restore species across their former range may fail where the factors that relegated species into refugee status are still at play or where their optimal habitat has vanished. Identifying areas where human pressure is low and where refugee species have persisted over the last millennia is crucial, and SDM based on historical data are important for doing so. Refugee species suffer from the shifting baseline syndrome, but careful reality checks are needed and all available data should be considered before determining the baseline that should inform conservation planning.