Come On Under the Grizzly’s Umbrella

Protecting umbrella species can help conservationists get the most bang for their bucks.

A grizzly bear in Katmai National Park, Alaska Media Bakery

Would you share an umbrella with a grizzly bear?

It sounds like a tough ask, we know. Especially since grizzlies can be 800 pounds of fur and ferocity. But cozied up beneath an ursine umbrella just might be one of the safest places for many plants and animals.

Figuratively, of course.

Grizzly bears are what conservationists refer to as an “umbrella species,“ by which they mean a particular species whose protections help safeguard other species in their habitat. Animals and plants like wolves, bighorn sheep, and whitebark pine trees benefit from efforts to conserve the bears’ food sources and habitats. It’s a kind of mooching conservationists can really get behind, especially when adequate funding dollars are hard to come by.

“Grizzlies require large, intact, and relatively undisturbed ecosystems,” says Sylvia Fallon, NRDC’s lead conservation scientist working on these bears.

These lumbering omnivores thrive where few, if any, roads exist and in places where there is as little development as possible. Sure, you hear stories of grizzlies living in relatively close proximity to humans, but they usually do so only out of desperation—and unfortunately, that’s when human-bear conflicts tend to arise. Keeping the bears (and their proverbial bowel movements) in the woods is best for all involved—and then some. Because when you keep spaces wild for grizzlies by limiting mining, oil exploration, and logging, you also save space for elk, deer, mountain goats, mountain lions, and bison.

Those animals are just a few examples of the charismatic megafauna bears help, but grizzly conservation also gives a boost to species that don't make for such popular plush toys and desktop backgrounds. The bears’ other neighbors, everything from bats and beavers to pikas and pocket gophers, also enjoy the perks of protection. Birds. Insects. Plants. Fungi. Seriously, we could go all day here. Grizzlies have a really big umbrella.

But you don’t have to be a huge bear to be considered an umbrella species (though pandas also qualify). Animals like the blueback herring also pull a lot of conservation weight.

At first blush, this freshwater fish doesn’t seem that special. It’s got fins, gills, and all the typical piscine accoutrements, but its only real flare is the slightest bit of a silvery-rainbow shimmer on its back. It’s pretty, but not something that would, say, put the fish on a T-shirt amid lightning bolts.

Perhaps this lack of charisma is why most of us don’t know blueback herring numbers have declined nearly 99 percent in the past 50 years. The bluebacks were once abundant in waterways from the coasts of Florida all the way up to Nova Scotia, but today they’re considered vulnerable to extinction, thanks to habitat destruction, overfishing, and water pollution.

Despite its relative obscurity, the blueback is actually really important. The fish is anadromous, which means it is born in freshwater, spends most of its life in the ocean, and returns to freshwater to spawn. Like salmon, bluebacks swim up rivers and streams to spawn en masse, and because of this, the humble herring is a crucial food source for everything from bass and bald eagles to herons, harbor seals, and river otters. These traveling morsels fall under the definition of a “keystone species,“ a species whose role in the food web or impact on habitat serves as a kind of glue holding its biological community together. For that reason, keystone species often make great umbrella species. And that is true of the blueback.

This herring’s wide-ranging ways would give its conservation the added bonus of conserving others in blueback habitat. Getting protections for these fish would throw a legal halo over the places they wriggle—from the deep sea where the fish winter to the coastal estuaries and inland streams where they breed in the spring.

And that’s exactly what conservationists are hoping to accomplish. In February 2015, a coalition of fishing and watershed protection groups, including NRDC, filed a petition asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to bump the bluebacks’ status up from vulnerable to threatened.

The umbrella species strategy isn’t perfect, to be sure. Care needs to be taken to ensure that the proper species are given this distinction. For instance, animals that are either too widespread to protect or too rare won't do—their respective umbrellas would either have too many holes or be too small.

But in a world losing more and more of its biodiversity, and with donor dollars stretched thin as they are, focusing on the protection of umbrella species offers conservationists the opportunity to get more bang out of each buck. Staving off extinction is always a good bargain—with umbrella species, even more so.

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