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Conservation Centers for Species Survival Aid Species Recovery
by Robin Sawyer
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute
Some of the nation's most critically endangered animals have avoided extinction in part to ex situ (literally, off-site) breeding. Whooping cranes (Grus americana), California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) and black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) are just a few of the species that exist in nature today because of the intensive management assistance and captive-bred animals provided by zoological organizations.
While traditional zoos have long worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) on species ranging from frogs to Florida panthers (Puma concolor coryi), most are limited in two essential assets for restoring imperiled wildlife–space and multidisciplinary expertise. This situation is critical as zoos work to develop husbandry practices while ensuring the production of high-quality animals for release into the wild. Wildlife recovery programs can be complex, daunting and expensive, requiring extensive cooperation to share resources and be financially efficient.
These challenges and opportunities led to the formation of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2). Formed in 2005, C2S2 is a group of five institutions–each accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums–with an explicit mission: to cooperatively apply its unique resources for the survival of threatened species with special needs—large areas, natural group sizes, minimal public disturbance and research.
C2S2 members include the Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas; the San Diego Zoo Global in San Diego, California; the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia; the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio; and White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, Florida. Collectively, these institutions provide more than 25,000 acres (about 10,100 hectares) devoted to endangered and threatened species. In addition to expansive acreage, each has scientific expertise, and years of practical wildlife research, management, and reintroduction experience. All have historical ties to the Service, having contributed to the study and recovery of some of the nation's rarest species (Table 1). This includes serving as a resource for scientific discovery and breeding management ex situ. In other cases, contributions are oriented to modeling or field assessments of habitat quality, species surveys and monitoring, and success with reintroducing species back into the wild.
The Service and C2S2 operate together under a Memorandum of Understanding to promote scientific understanding and conservation of priority species and habitats. The focus of this relationship is on species that can benefit most from C2S2's significant acreage and the scientific expertise. C2S2 addresses issues in a multidisciplinary fashion, including tapping into already existing alliances with nongovernmental conservation organizations, academia, state and federal agencies, and zoos.
"What makes C2S2 attractive is the strong, multidisciplinary resources of its facilities," says Rick Sayers of the Service's Endangered Species Program. "The ability of these organizations to bring together experts is particularly important in advancing scientific understanding and conservation of imperiled species."
Photo Credit: Courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global
At the Service's invitation, C2S2 became involved in the Desert Tortoise Conservation Center (DTCC), a facility that functions as a holding, transfer and research facility for desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) rescued from habitat loss in Nevada's greater Las Vegas Valley. C2S2's San Diego Zoo Global currently manages daily program operations, including animal care and scientific recommendations to ensure that the DTCC contributes to research, recovery, reintroduction, and training. In other collaborations with the Service and U.S. Geological Survey, C2S2 provides advice and guidance for improved captive management of the federally endangered masked bobwhite quail (Colinus virginianus ridgwayi) at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona; is assessing the causes of death in reintroduced Attwater's prairie chickens (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri) at Attwater's Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge in Texas; and is examining the low fertility of the whooping crane breeding flock at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.
Not all of C2S2 activities involve North American species, or occur within U.S. borders. The consortium is also focused on increasing numbers and knowledge on rare antelopes and wild equids (horses), tackling cheetah infertility, and building conservation capacity in China and Russia.
The C2S2 consortium realizes its capacity to manage and recover species is only as good as its ability to maintain wildlife habitats. The collective acreage of C2S2 members includes such ecosystem types as longleaf pine, chaparral, scrub prairies and eastern hardwood forests. While they are used for managing rare wildlife collections, these lands also serve as important habitat for local native species. With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, C2S2 institutions are testing methods to control invasive plant species. Follow-up work includes monitoring the ability of native plants and animals to reclaim restored landscapes. Maintaining native wildlife is a natural complement to the mission of each C2S2 institution.
With a growing portfolio of projects and successes, C2S2 has only scratched the surface of its capacity. The consortium is committed to sharing its expertise and providing more direct assistance to recovery programs. With ever increasing numbers of listed species and ever more challenging budgets, the timing seems perfect for exploring new ways of working together towards more efficient species recovery.
Robin Sawyer, the C2S2 Program Officer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more about the C2S2 Program, visit www.conservationcenters.org.
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