Most risk assessments and decisions in conservation are based on surrogate approaches, where a group of species or environmental indicators are selected as proxies for other aspects of biodiversity. In the focal species approach, a suite of species is selected based on life history characteristics, such as dispersal limitation and area requirements. Testing the validity of the focal species concept has proved difficult, due to a lack of theory justifying the underlying framework, explicit objectives and measures of success. We sought to understand the conditions under which the focal species concept has merit for conservation decisions.
Our model system comprised 10 vertebrate species in 39 patches of native forest embedded in pine plantation in New South Wales, Australia.
We selected three focal species based on ecological traits. We used a multiple-species reserve selection method that minimizes the expected loss of species, by estimating the risk of extinction with a metapopulation model. We found optimal reserve solutions for multiple species, including all 10 species, the three focal species, for all possible combinations of three species, and for each species individually.
Our case study suggests that the focal species approach can work: the reserve system that minimized the expected loss of the focal species also minimized the expected species loss in the larger set of 10 species. How well the solution would perform for other species and given landscape dynamics remains unknown.
The focal species approach may have merit as a conservation short cut if placed within a quantitative decision-making framework, where the aspects of biodiversity for which the focal species act as proxies are explicitly defined, and success is determined by whether the use of the proxy results in the same decision. Our methods provide a framework for testing other surrogate approaches used in conservation decision-making and risk assessment.