Waiting can be an optimal conservation strategy, even in a crisis discipline

Gwenllian D. Iacona, Hugh P. Possingham, Michael Bode

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Biodiversity conservation projects confront immediate and escalating threats with limited funding. Conservation theory suggests that the best response to the species extinction crisis is to spend money as soon as it becomes available, and this is often an explicit constraint placed on funding. We use a general dynamic model of a conservation landscape to show that this decision to “front-load” project spending can be suboptimal if a delay allows managers to use resources more strategically. Our model demonstrates the existence of temporal efficiencies in conservation management, which parallel the spatial efficiencies identified by systematic conservation planning. The optimal timing of decisions balances the rate of biodiversity decline (e.g., the relaxation of extinction debts, or the progress of climate change) against the rate at which spending appreciates in value (e.g., through interest, learning, or capacity building). We contrast the benefits of acting and waiting in two ecosystems where restoration can mitigate forest bird extinction debts: South Australia’s Mount Lofty Ranges and Paraguay’s Atlantic Forest. In both cases, conservation outcomes cannot be maximized by front-loading spending, and the optimal solution recommends substantial delays before managers undertake conservation actions. Surprisingly, these delays allow superior conservation benefits to be achieved, in less time than front-loading. Our analyses provide an intuitive and mechanistic rationale for strategic delay, which contrasts with the orthodoxy of front-loaded spending for conservation actions. Our results illustrate the conservation efficiencies that could be achieved if decision makers choose when to spend their limited resources, as opposed to just where to spend them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10497-10502
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number39
StatePublished - Sep 26 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Conservation finance
  • Dynamic optimization
  • Extinction debt
  • Forest restoration
  • Systematic conservation planning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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