The United States would seem to be an ideal place for biodiversity, supported and protected by its dozens of parks including Yellowstone and the Everglades.
But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds there is a mismatch between the lands incorporated into protected areas and the habitats of the estimated 1,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and plants most in need of protection. Most protected lands are in the West, the authors said, while many of these species are found in the Southeast and the southern Appalachians, which lack adequate protections.
"Habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinctions, and so where and how much society chooses to protect is vital for saving life on the planet," Clinton Jenkins, currently a visiting professor at the Institute for Ecological Research and a co-author on the study said. "The U.S. has protected many areas, but it has yet to protect many of the most biologically important parts of the country."
The authors created a series of biodiversity maps of the lower 48 states including a set that assesses the range of nearly 1,000 species considered endemic, that is native only to the U.S. The list includes many species most people have never heard of, including scores of small fish, birds and amphibians. Among them are 18 species of small-range salamanders that live in the Appalachian Mountains and the Bluemask Darter, a yellow and blue fish whose range is limited to the Caney Fork River system in the Cumberland River drainage of Tennessee.
The endemic species are clearly concentrated in the South and Southeast, where there is the least protection.
"This emphasizes the plight of endemic species - those that occur nowhere else in the world - and for which U.S. protected areas are critical to their survival," Kyle Van Houtan, a co-author on the study and an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said. "While they may not all be rhinos, lions, and pandas, it is these species that are essential in their ecosystems that compose the American landscape."
Jenkins agreed, adding it would be a mistake to focus only on the "big, charismatic things that everybody remembers all the time."
"Most of life isn't big. Most of the things in the world are medium and small," he said. "There is a lot of life out there that does amazing things if you stop to look at it. It is not all grizzly bears or elephants or pandas. Many times the small plants and creatures out there are ecologically more important that the big things that are more obvious to us."
Jenkins said the discrepancy in levels of protection has been driven by history and geography. Much of the South was occupied and developed far sooner than the West. At the same time, land in the West "tends to be less suitable for agriculture and development" and much more of it is in federal hands.
"Biodiversity wasn't always their intent at the get go," Jenkins said of the motivation for protected areas. "Over time, that has become has more of an issue and people are becoming more aware. But we have yet to see a big shift to protecting areas in the regions that are really important biologically for these species that occur no where else."
He said there are great examples of doing things right like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, "but it's relatively small and one of the few significantly protected areas in the southeast."
Going forward, the authors are calling for increased protection on public lands and "incentives for private land owners" such as tax breaks to keep them from developing. It notes that 22.6 percent of all easements - a popular way to set aside private land for conservation - are in Maine and Montana, which have few endemic species. Only 7.8 percent of the private lands in the Southeast have easements.
"We have the information to identify important places. What is needed is the political will and adequate resources to protect the nation's biological heritage," Jenkins said. "Many of these species exist only in small parts of the country. Unless we take responsibility and protect them, they could disappear from the planet."
The study calls for increased levels of protection for the Blue Ridge Mountains, Tennessee, Alabama, northern Georgia watersheds, the Florida panhandle and the Florida Keys.
Peter H. Raven, president Emeritus of the Missouri Botanical Garden, said the study highlighted the biologically rich areas that have been neglected but also how budget cuts by conservation groups could undermine their efforts to identify areas in need of protection and thus repeat the same mistakes that were made "in setting up many parks and protected areas."
A botanist active in several global conservation efforts, Raven said the study also demonstrated the power of data, which can help conservationists to better identify areas in need of protection. These maps and other data could be used determine where endemic species are located, the price of that land and the concentration of people on that land - all of this helping determine which areas should be protected first.
"This will allow us to find the areas with the most diversity and see which one can secured at the least cost, which ones would be low hanging fruit that could bought cheaply," Raven told CBS News. "If we can do that, we will be able to pass on far more of our wonderful biological diversity than we could in any other way."