Plants and animals are in big trouble. All over the world, wild species are vanishing, becoming first rare and then extinct, at an unprecedented speed. As a matter of our own survival, it is crucial that we begin to turn this around. But amid all this loss of life, even a committed conservationist might be defeated by the question: Where should we start?
In other words, what should we protect first? We might start with species that are known to be of great usefulness to humans, like pollinators. We might start with species we find awe-inspiring, like tigers and giant sequoias. We could start with the species that are in most imminent danger of extinction, or we could write off these vanishing creatures as lost causes and start with the species that we still have a real chance of saving.
Another idea is to start with umbrella species.
Here’s how it works: First, we identify a species that requires a large range, that has a wide variety of needs, that lives in an area packed with other kinds of life, or that is easy to rally support for. Then, we protect that species. In doing so, we go a long way towards also protecting all the species that live in the same area, that rely on similar resources, or that are closely connected to the species getting the special protection. The species that is directly being protected is called the umbrella species, because it acts as an umbrella, or a shield, for other plants and animals.
The umbrella species approach has some advantages. First, it’s easier to create and enforce a conservation plan for a single, well-studied plant or animal than to try to do the same for the hundreds or even thousands of species that are actually living in a given area. Second, it can be easier to build the political will to protect one iconic species – like whales or polar bears or Joshua trees – than to rally people to demand action to save the salamanders and the beetles and the pupfishes and the mosses and every other kind of living thing.
On the other hand, the strategy of focusing on a single species – usually a large mammal – can reinforce the idea that less majestic creatures are not important or not worth protecting in their own right. And, while protecting smaller creatures through protecting their umbrella species is better than not protecting them at all, it’s likely to be less effective than enacting conservation plans specifically tailored to each species.
How we think about this question influences how we garden in our yards. If we decide that we want to focus on protecting monarchs, all we really need to plant is milkweed. But that doesn’t do much to help other species. If we also want to protect swallowtails and fritillaries and atalas and commas and mourning cloaks, we need to plant pipevines and violets and coontie and elm trees and willows. Then we’re starting to build a thriving ecosystem that makes room for lots of other species as well.