New Audubon Study Reveals Discrepancies in Conservation Planning Methods

Researchers used Audubon’s Survival by Degrees report to compare different approaches to climate-informed bird conservation planning.

NEW YORK (November 2, 2022) – Researchers at the National Audubon Society published a study that evaluated different approaches to climate-informed bird conservation in the United States. Using data from Audubon’s Survival by Degrees report, researchers compared two widely used conservation planning methods and determined that they identify different priority areas, with only 40 percent consensus on average across species groups. Published in Ecography, the study offers important insights on how to strategically conserve more natural habitats that will help birds adapt to a changing climate now and in the future.

"Birds tell us that they need more protected areas to help them survive, and it’s vital that these natural habitats support a diversity of species with a wide array of needs and shifting ranges over time,” said Lotem Taylor, primary author of the study and GIS and data science specialist at Audubon. “We know that natural spaces can help protect birds and people alike from the harmful effects of climate change. By understanding that different planning approaches identify different priority areas, we can make sure that the methods used better match conservation goals.”

The researchers used bird distributions and land cover projections to compare priority areas derived from two widely used conservation planning methods: in situ macrorefugia, identified as areas of high predicted species retention, and complementarity-based optimizations, identified using conservation planning software. The study looked at 557 bird species across 17 biogeographical groups in the continental U.S., and planning methods were compared based on 16 metrics relating to biodiversity value, climate change exposure, habitat characteristics, landscape configuration and protection status. 

Results showed that:

  • Spatial distributions of priority areas differed by biogeographical group and method, with only 40.5% consensus on average across groups.
  • Optimizations represented species more efficiently than macrorefugia, especially for forest groups, and had greater overall biodiversity value and better habitat condition.
  • Macrorefugia encompassed higher elevations and larger contiguous patches and were expected to experience less winter-season warming.

Based on the results, researchers recommend using optimizations to identify conservation areas where possible because this network-based approach can help ensure that all at-risk bird species are represented. In geographies where resources are limited or consensus between different prioritization approaches is high, they recommend protecting the consensus areas since method agreement provides increased confidence in their ability to protect birds under climate change. This deeper understanding of conservation planning can help ensure that the priority areas identified to achieve area-based targets like the 30x30 initiative can actually meet conservation goals. 

According to Audubon’s 2019 report Survival By Degrees: 389 Species on the Brink, climate change threatens more than two-thirds of North America’s bird species with extinction. However, the same science suggests that by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, more than three-quarters of vulnerable species can be protected. Audubon’s 2021 Natural Climate Solutions Report provided a scientific framework to help address this existential threat and showed that habitats that are important for birds now and in the future are also critical to reducing greenhouse emissions given their ability to naturally store and sequester carbon.

The new study is available here:

About Audubon
The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Learn more at and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @audubonsociety.

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