Faced with the enormous challenges posed by climate change, habitat fragmentation, water shortages and population growth, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has embarked on a bold approach to wildlife conservation: the identification of surrogate species in defined geographic areas.

By planning for surrogate species—which represent other species or aspects of the environment—the Service can better ensure that wildlife populations will be healthy and at self–sustaining levels for generations to come.

In announcing draft guidance on how to select surrogate species, Service Director Dan Ashe noted, “Our ability to realize and sustain the mission of the Service has never been tested more than now.” Indeed, the sheer number of species with which the Service, states and other partners are concerned makes it impossible to conserve landscape–scale habitats on a species–by–species basis.

The Service’s draft guidance outlines how to select surrogate species, including criteria for defining biological goals. Each of the Service’s eight regions is now holding discussions with employees as well as conservation partners, state fish and wildlife agencies and others on the draft guidance. Ultimately, Fish and Wildlife Service regional directors are responsible for identifying surrogate species in their regions. The Service expects conservation targets to be defined and identified for each region by late 2013–early 2014.

The surrogate species approach works directly with the Service’s drive for Strategic Habitat Conservation, which seeks to link the actions of its programs and partners so their combined effect can achieve conservation outcomes at a larger scale. In this way, conservation actions can help recover and sustain species populations.

The theory and practice of using surrogate species in conservation planning are documented in scientific literature. To ensure that the Service is using the best available science, it will submit final, draft guidance to independent experts for scientific peer review.

For wildlife refuges, the surrogate species approach is intended to help refuge managers focus on a set of relevant priorities that can be monitored to see if biological goals are being met.

“In many ways, national wildlife refuges have worked with the concept of surrogate species for a long time,” said Jeff Rupert, Refuge System Headquarters chief of the Division of Natural Resources and Conservation Planning. “When Pelican Island became the first wildlife refuge in 1903, it was established to protect the brown pelican. In fact, the brown pelican served as a surrogate for the benefit of lots of water birds that nest there—like egrets, herons, ibis and wood storks.

“Identifying surrogate species will mean our conservation actions will have a better chance of real landscape–level results. We’ve employed the surrogate species concept as the Refuge System worked on comprehensive conservation plans, which set biological goals and objectives. As refuge managers, we’ve seen that some species will work better as surrogates than others. Those are the discussions that are taking place across the country,” said Rupert, who was refuge manager at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma before coming to the Refuge System Headquarters.

If species on a particular refuge, including migratory birds, have unique habitat requirements or management needs that cannot be met using a surrogate species approach, their needs will be incorporated individually into landscape conservation strategies or addressed by stand–alone strategies. The Service will be collaborating with states and other partners to accommodate as many species as possible and target conservation efforts where they will have the greatest benefit.