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Protected Lands in the US Mismatch Priorities for Biodiversity, especially the Southeast

Date: 07/02/15

NAZARÉ PAULISTA, BRAZIL, April 6 – A new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences evaluates the protected areas of the United States and their coverage of biological diversity. Using a detailed analysis of more than 3,000 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish, and trees, the authors introduce a collection of new biodiversity maps and an assessment of priorities for expanding biodiversity protection in the country.

[Download a pdf of the Protected Lands/Biodiversity study here.] 

The researchers find that the existing portfolio of protected lands ‐ both federal and private – poorly matches the biodiversity priorities in the country. Many regions that are rich in unique or rare species, such as the Southeast and the southern Appalachians, have inadequate levels of protection.

The study’s lead author Clinton Jenkins, currently a Visiting Professor at the Institute for Ecological Research, says, “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. The U.S. has protected many areas, but it has yet to protect many of the most biologically important parts of the country.”

While the authors find that the total area protected in the lower 48 states is substantial, nearly 8%, its geographic configuration is nearly the opposite of where the country’s unique species concentrate, known as centers of endemism. Most protected lands are in the West, while the vulnerable species are largely in the Southeast. The authors find that private land protections are significant, but they are also not concentrated where the biological priorities are.


Selected maps and messages from the study applicable to the GCPO: 

  1. South-Central Texas around Austin and San Antonio is a recommended priority area for conservation – This represents a cluster of sites that are priorities mainly due to amphibians, but also fish and reptiles. This is nearly all privately owned.

The US Priority Index map for Biodiversity:

Jenkins US priority index for biodiversity.png

The Texas Gulf coast is a hotspot for bird diversity:

US bird diversity.png

Southern, central, and eastern Texas have very high reptile diversity:

US reptile diversity.png


“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,” says Jenkins. “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.”

To improve the protection coverage, the authors created a map of priorities based on multiple groups of animals and trees, and recommend specific areas for immediate conservation attention. These areas contain a mix of public and private land, meaning that major progress in conservation will require actions in both the public and private sectors.

Kyle Van Houtan, a coauthor on the study and an ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said, "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. 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.”

The world’s preeminent expert on biodiversity, Edward O. Wilson, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, wrote: “This is the most important scientific report of at least the last decade on the distribution of America’s parks and biodiversity, with implications for future policy on conservation and land use.”

Co‐author Joseph Sexton, senior scientist at the University of Maryland Global Land Cover Facility says, "Diversity gives nature the ability to adapt to change. Losing the variety of life in these places means increasing their risk of failing to adapt to the many human pressures in our rapidly changing world.”

Among the many species evaluated are the endangered Bluemask Darter (Etheostoma akatulo), a rare species restricted to the Caney Fork River system in Tennessee, and the Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri), a species restricted to high elevations in the southern Appalachian Mountains.

Says co‐author Stuart Pimm, Conservation Chair at Duke University, North Carolina, “We are committed to finding the top priorities for species conservation and effective means to protect them — in the USA and around the world.” Pimm and Jenkins are respectively the President and Vice President of the conservation non‐profit SavingSpecies, an organization dedicated to helping communities around the world to protect their many unique species.

Note: Maps and results from the study are available at Photos and additional details for species are included below.  Copies of the study and high‐res images from it are available at (423) 742‐6001 or Contact information for the study’s authors are listed below this text.



CITATION: “U.S. protected lands mismatch biodiversity priorities,” by Clinton N. Jenkins, Kyle S. Van Houtan, Stuart L. Pimm, and Joseph O. Sexton. Published April 6, 2015, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

CONTACT INFORMATION: Clinton Jenkins is available for interviews in English or Portuguese at 423‐742‐ 6001 (U.S.), +55 11‐99983‐1583 (Brazil), or at; Stuart Pimm is available at 646‐489‐5481 or Kyle Van Houtan is at 808‐228‐1112 or Joe Sexton is at 919‐699‐7819 or