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The Tension Between Conservation And Research

Species and habitats need to be preserved, but scientists need time to learn how

A 20-POUND monkey from the Atlantic forests of Brazil is posing what may be an 800-pound gorilla of a question for conservationists: Is it vital to save a pristine habitat in order to save an endangered species living in it?

That question arises from field research during a 12-year period on the Muriquis monkey, a ``flagship'' endangered species that has been compared to the gorillas of Africa and the pandas of China as an ecological bellwether.

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Such long-term field research is crucial ``if we're really going to understand what we're doing'' in developing strategies to save endangered species, says John Hearn, director of the Wisconsin regional Primate Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. And the work to be done is enormous: He notes that in the area of reproduction, for example, only 50 out of thousands of mammal species are well characterized -- most of them domestic livestock or pets. Yet understanding animal reproduction and the details of the internal and external mechanisms that affect it are vital to conservation efforts. And because each species is unique, ``you cannot extrapolate readily between species and groups,'' Dr. Hearn says.

As for the Muriquis, the writings of Portuguese and Spanish explorers in 1800s Brazil held that the species lived exclusively in primary or virgin forests. That habitat has come under pressure from expanding human populations and logging in privately held tracts of primary forests, says Karen Strier, a University of Wisconsin anthropologist who is leading the Muriquis research effort in question. In 1987, she says, 11 forests were known to support Muriquis populations. By 1991, three of those had lost their Muriquis.

Only after a dozen years of work, ``do we have enough data accumulated to look at issues related to conservation,'' she told a recent meeting of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Madison. Among her findings: Selective logging actually allows for a larger population of monkeys by opening the area to a wider range of vegetation on which the monkeys can feed. She adds that secondary forests play an important role in supporting larger monkey populations. ``If you want to preserve the primary-forest habitat,'' she adds, ``you won't have many Muriquis.''

Moreover, Dr. Strier says, had conservationists even a year ago tried to disperse some of the males in the Muriquis population into other populations of Muriquis to enhance breeding, not only the exporting population, but also the importing population could have been undercut. Only in the past year has it become clear that females, not males, leave their natal group to begin their reproductive careers.

While she emphasizes that her results are specific to the species she's studying, Strier also says that those results have prompted a larger question: Is it the object to preserve the most pristine habitat one can find, or to preserve a species? The two objectives may not necessarily be compatible.

If long-term research helps provide information to devise preservation strategies, it is also necessary to help evaluate those strategies, says Stephen Carpenter, a limnologist at the University of Wisconsin. ``The basic science takes a long time because you're studying natural systems with slow clocks,'' he says, citing Madison's Lake Mendota as an example. Its water is replaced every six to 10 years through natural processes. ``Engineers tell us that it takes about three or four water-residence times'' to see the effects of remedial measures. Thus, he says, only now is the lake responding in a significant way to a 30-year-old ban on dumping sewage into the lake.

Drumming up funds to pay for environmental research is ``countercultural,'' Dr. Hearn says. ``Congress looks for a three-year payoff, but three years out there in the bush is not going to tell you how complex environments work.''

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Richard Primack, a plant ecologist at Boston University who wrote the first formal conservation-biology textbook, agrees. ``Unfortunately, the tendency of American science is to have three- to five-year budgets.'' But, he adds, ``a fairly substantial amount of money is now being earmarked for long-term funding of studies on how the environment is affected by human activities,'' with money coming from a diverse set of agencies, from the United States Agency for International Development to the Defense Department.

IN an effort to address the need for more systematic long-term studies, in 1980 the National Science Foundation (NSF) established long-term ecological research centers (LTERs) around the country. Six-year grants are awarded on a competitive, peer-reviewed basis.

``This is a key aspect of NSF funding,'' says Fred Swanson, an ecosystem team leader at the US Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station. ``People compete in a peer-review environment where decisionmaking is free of political agendas.''

Even within this LTER project, the gap between research time and funding periods can be dramatic. ``We've started two studies with 200-year design lives. One centers on the role of log decomposition and decay as habitat and nutrient sources in forests,'' he says. ``And we're funding them with six-year grants.''

Last year, the National Research Council recommended that LTERs play a more active role not only in studying discreet ecosystems, but in studying the human impact on ecosystems as well. Those recommendations appear to be working their way into grants. As part of that new thrust, the University of Wisconsin, whose Trout Lake research station in the northern part of the state is one of the original five LTER sites, was awarded $1 million last month by the NSF to expand its activities.

``Until now, we've focused on fairly pristine lakes,'' Carpenter says. The new NSF money will be used to expand research to four more lakes, two affected by urban areas and two by agriculture. ``We need to focus on questions of restoration -- how will we know if a lake is restored? -- and on human-lake feedbacks,'' he says.

THE shifting focus toward more direct studies of human interactions with ecosystems studies at LTER sites points toward an inevitable tension within the conservation biology community.

For example, biologists have become alarmed over an apparent decline in amphibians in places where they used to be plentiful, says Boston University's Dr. Primack. ``That suggests the need for strong action to halt the decline.'' On the other hand, he notes that some biologists say that amphibian populations undergo natural fluctuations. At the least, he says, ``we need more systematic monitoring to try to document forcefully'' what's happening.

Reconciling the need for action with the need for study can be daunting.

``Environmental problem-solving is different from doing science; it has social, political, and economic agendas driving it, ''Wisconsin's Dr. Carpenter says. ``Yet policymakers need to weigh the costs, benefits, and probable outcomes of the actions. Science can quantify options and uncertainties. The questions then become: What do we have the political will to do, and what will our social systems tolerate?''