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Habitat protection refers to a range of human-initiated approaches, strategies, and interventions to avoid the potentially detrimental consequences of anthropogenic activities-such as harvesting, gathering, hunting, logging, mining, agriculture, and residential or commercial development – to habitats (the abiotic and biotic components) necessary for the survival of species deemed significant. In many cases, early protection efforts targeted the habitats of species with particular utilitarian value, such as charismatic wildlife or game animals; and unusual and rare species endangered or threatened with extinction. Historically, these efforts have been overwhelmingly focused on terrestrial species, neglecting freshwater and marine environments, and were undertaken by agencies of the nation-state, or in some parts of the world, by colonial administrators. For example, the U.S. Endangered Species Act largely has incorporated a species-specific management approach. In most cases, these efforts have focused on creating a range of management territories.
Increasingly, the scope of habitat protection efforts is broadening, both in terms of the ecosystem components included in efforts and the total area needed for adequate protection. First, this shift is the result of alternative ways of thinking about nature. Recognizing the importance of new concepts, such as biodiversity, there has been a shift away from the narrower focus on plants and wildlife valued for their utilitarian purposes to a broader focus on protecting ecological integrity and ecosystem health. As a result, efforts that consider multiple species at the same time-and their requisite habitats-are, in part, responsible for the fact that larger areas are under consideration for protection. This includes increasing attention to freshwater and marine ecosystems and the habitats that support complex webs of species interaction.
Second, new scientific insights into the ways that ecosystems change through time and the ecological processes that create and maintain particular habitats point to the importance of devising strategies that allow key ecological processes (e.g., flooding, fire, among others) to operate relatively unimpeded by humans. This has led to additional approaches that emphasize spaces that are more clearly reflective of physiographic or natural boundaries, such as watersheds, landscapes (heterogeneous areas of land composed of interacting ecosystem clusters), and entire ecoregions (large areas of land or water whose ecosystems contain regionally distinctive biodiversity).
Nature preserves, reserves, parks, and protected areas are the most commonly used management strategies to protect habitat. These territorial units rely largely on the creation of a central core area where human intrusions are kept to a minimum. According to principles of conservation biology and landscape ecology, this core area should be surrounded by a buffer zone that is designed to reduce the potential impacts of neighboring anthropogenic activities. Ideally, core areas will be connected functionally to other important spaces through the use of habitat corridors to facilitate the movement of species. In both cases, human settlements are located outside of these two zones, with local anthropogenic needs met by the areas within the buffer zone. Taken together, this management provides a mechanism for creating an integrated network of preserved areas that protect species habitats at the landscape and ecoregion scale.
In recent years, there has been a convergence by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the Sierra Club, among others, on this idea of ecoregion-based conservation as a guiding framework for intervention. Thus, habitat protection is also undertaken by agencies at multiple levels of government within nation-states, and increasingly by NGOs, such as conservation organizations and private land trusts. For example, some state and local governments in the United States conduct habitat planning exercises to design protected area systems within their jurisdictions. These agencies, together with the help of NGOs, are actively purchasing lands outright or using conservation easements to ensure that important habitats will not be developed.
The sociopolitical impacts of habitat protection on human communities have been varied. In some instances, there has been a history of forced removal of local peoples (including indigenous communities and early settlers) by government agencies and colonial administrators to create national parks or wildlife areas in some developed countries and former colonies. Today, efforts to apply the core-buffer model in new places-or the “guns-and-fences” model as it is derisively labeled by some critics-is sometimes seen as a form of neocolonialism or ecological imperialism. In other places, emphasis on habitat protection has been viewed as a threat to private property rights and has spawned political opposition.
- Timothy Beatley, Habitat Conservation Planning (University of Texas Press, 1994);
- Martha Groom, Gary Meffe, and Ronald Carroll, Principles of Conservation Biology (Sinauer Associates, 2005);
- Craig Groves, Drafting a Conservation Blueprint (Island Press, 2003);
- Gary Meffe, Larry Nielsen, Richard Knight, and Dennis Schenborn, Ecosystem Management: Adaptive, Community-Based Conservation (Island Press, 2002);
- Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell, 2004).