From red to green for endangered species

Published on: 6. September 2021
Author: Anne Olga Syverhuset

More than 38 500 species are threatened with extinction globally. A new tool can help reverse this trend.

From red to green for endangered species
Arenaria humifusa is listed as Endangered in Norway. Photo: Magni Olsen Kyrkjeeide, NINA.

Species and habitat loss are an ongoing problem in Norway and across the globe. Can we reverse this trend? In a new article: Bending the curve: Operationalizing national Red Lists to customize conservation actions to reduce extinction risk, Norwegian researchers present a tool for planning conservation measures and determining when goals have been reached.

Three steps to success

The Red to Green framework consists of three steps:

First, experts gather existing knowledge about the species or habitat type that is endangered. This phase allows critical knowledge gaps to be identified.

Step two involves setting goals: What do we want the future conservation status of the species or habitat type to be? One example of a goal could be an improvement in Red List status — from Endangered to Vulnerable. The Red List criteria are used to break down the main goal into measurable objectives. That means the criteria and threshold values used during the Red Listing of the species are used (see BOX 1). Regular Red List updates can then be used to report on progress and whether the goal has been achieved.

“The advantage of building on the Red Lists is that these are well established and known worldwide. They are updated regularly, but are not designed to set conservation priorities. Our methodology has operationalized the Red Lists  for management,” says NINA researcher Marianne Evju.
Step three involves identifying conservation actions. These may include physical measures, such as removing an alien species or filling ditches in bogs, but can also involve actions such as land protection.

“By identifying relevant conservation actions for many species and habitats at the same time, we provide nature resource managers with a basis for prioritizing conservation actions and making national strategic action plans, to halt the loss of biodiversity,” Evju says.



The Red Lists - what are they?

The Red Lists assess species and habitats at risk of extinction or collapse. In Norway, the Red Lists are published by the Norwegian Biodiversity Information Centre in collaboration with experts. The methodology used has been developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Species and habitat type is assessed on the basis of a set of quantitative criteria.

The criteria for species include (A) Strong reduction in population sizes, (B) Limited distribution in combination with fragmentation or decline, (C) Limited population size in decline and few reproductive individuals in each subpopulation, (D) Very small population size or occurrence and (E ) Quantitative analysis.

The criteria for habitat types include (A) Reduction in total area, (B) Limited geographical distribution (C) Abiotic deterioration, (D) Biotic deterioration and (E) Quantitative analysis. Each criterion has threshold values that determine which Red List category the species or habitat should be placed in: Critically Endangered (CR), Endangered (EN), Vulnerable (VU), Near Threatened (NT), Data Deficient (DD) or Least Concern (LC).


Tested the tool on 90 Red List species and 33 habitat types

The researchers tested the Red to Green framework on 90 endangered species and 33 endangered habitats. The goal was to improve the conservation status by on Red List category within 2035 for all species and habitats.

The 90 species that were assessed were all classified as Endangered or Critically Endangered in Norway have a large proportion of their European distribution in Norway. The researchers used the Red List index to create scenarios for the conservation outcome of the species and habitats in 2035. The Red List index summarizes the conservation status of a set of species or habitats, and can be used to look at trends over time.

The researchers created three scenarios for conservation status: A business-as-usual scenario, where conservation efforts continue at the same level as today; a scenario where all species and habitats reach the original goal; and one where all conservation actions proposed for the species and habitats are carried out.

“Our results clearly show that without additional actions, the status of these threatened species and habitats will hardly change towards 2035,” says NINA researcher Magni Olsen Kyrkjeeide.

The outlook towards 2035 is brighter for habitat types than for species: if actions are implemented, the conservation status will be significantly improved for the habitats in question. Changes in land use are the main threat to most habitats, and actions such as land protection and ecological restoration will improve the conservation status, if there is will and finances to implement them. Conservation actions aimed at habitats will also provide better status for the species associated with them. For the 90 species in the sample, however, there was little change.

Lack of knowledge the most important obstacle

Why is this so? The researchers see that the main reason why people are unable to propose actions to improve conservation status of species, is caused by knowledge gaps.

“Of the 90 species that we assessed, we do not have sufficient knowledge to propose actions for 60 of them. The most frequent missing data was basic knowledge about occurrence and distribution — we can’t implement actions to conserve a species if we don’t know where it is! For many of these rare species, we also lack sufficient knowledge about their ecology, life history and most important threats,” Kyrkjeeide says.

The results also show that for many species, global warming is the most important threat. “Climate change will lead to a decline in available habitats for many of our rarest mountain plants,” Evju says.

From goals to action

The international goals for biodiversity conservation by 2020, the so called Aichi targets, have not been fully met, both globally and in Norway. The international community is now working to develop new biodiversity targets.

“In this context, we need tools that translate international targets into national and local actions,” Kyrkjeeide says.

The Red to Green framework allows for a systematic approach to conserve biodiversity at a national scale. It identifies actions that should be implemented to improve conservation for species and habitats, but it also highlights barriers to improvements. In some cases this could be knowledge gaps, in other cases there are threats that cannot be easily counteracted with actions — and sometimes there are costs.

“We hope and believe the tool will be useful for future strategic planning of biodiversity conservation at the national scale,” Evju says. 

The tool has been developed in collaboration with the Norwegian Environment Agency.

Contact: Magni Olsen Kyrkjeeide and Marianne Evju



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