Thinking Bigger: Coordinated Place-Based Conservation in PARCAs

To conserve wildlife and wild places across the U.S., together, we must answer the call to act collectively and consider the big picture. At ARC, we think beyond individual animals and individual species. Even as we recognize and celebrate the unique importance of each flattened musk turtle in Alabama and each Chiricahua leopard frog in New Mexico, we never stop thinking about the broader ecosystem context in which these creatures exist because that holds the key to their future. Amphibians and reptiles face an incredibly diverse set of threats across the country, from habitat loss and fragmentation to disease and persecution. If we want to slow their declines, we have to prioritize the most important areas where they are found and build healthy ecosystems and populations in those places.

That’s why our conservation strategy is place-based. It rests on identifying and working in what we call Priority Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Areas, or PARCAs. We have identified hundreds of such places all over the country that stretch from the Southern Appalachians to the Southeastern coastal plains, across the heartland prairies to the deserts of the Southwest, and up to the Pacific Northwest. 

These are locations that contain either high densities of amphibians and reptiles or large numbers of endangered amphibian and reptile species (or in many cases, both). By focusing on a whole area of importance—which usually also includes lots of other biodiversity besides reptiles and amphibians—we focus on what will ensure the future of these species in the long run: rebuilding entire ecosystems that can sustain healthy, robust populations. 

Once we’ve identified a PARCA where we will work, we get down to business in three main steps. First, we determine exactly where in the area a species is and how many individuals live there. You might think that information is already out there, but there is very little knowledge about many of these species. We often have to fill in a baseline of data—it’s impossible to protect something without having the basic facts about it. Second, we use the most up-to-date science available to dig into why that species is rare or struggling and identify the threats causing its decline. With those two steps done, we know where a species is and what issues it is facing. From there, we can move on to the third and most tangible step: building a conservation plan and getting to work. 

In addition to our broad-scale policy and outreach efforts around the country, we are currently working on the ground in nineteen PARCAs. In each one, how we create and implement a conservation plan looks different. In the Gila National Forest of New Mexico, we focus on wetland and riparian area restoration for the Chiricahua leopard frog and the Northern Mexican garter snake. The permanent streams these species rely on have been impounded, ditched, or disrupted by cattle, leaving populations isolated. The remaining water holds invasive crayfish and stocked gamefish that throw the ecosystem out of balance. ARC is working to remove these invasive species, rebuild wetlands where they have been lost, provide alternate water sources for cattle in sensitive areas, and support native fish populations, so the frog and snakes can use these streams as they once did.

In our Bankhead PARCA, located in the Bankhead National Forest of Alabama north of Birmingham, we are fighting to restore two critically endangered species that share habitat there—the Black Warrior waterdog and the flattened musk turtle. Right now, we are conducting surveys using environmental DNA, which analyzes water samples to find out what species have been there, to determine population locations and numbers. We are also filling out a threat assessment for the habitat so that we know where possible issues are, like bank erosion and point-source pollution. Once we have the information on the two species and the habitat issues, we can start the full-on restoration work. 

At every PARCA, we are at a different stage. At some, we know what needs to be done and are doing it, and at others, we are gathering data to prepare our strategy. The Gila and Bankhead PARCAs are just two examples of places where ARC carries out our critical work across the country. Other projects include conservation plans and habitat restoration for spotted turtles, pine snakes, flatwoods salamanders, Texas tortoises, and box turtles (among many others). 

The joy in our work for all of these species comes in seeing populations rebound—in holding a quarter-sized baby bog turtle, in releasing gopher froglets we’ve raised from tadpoles, and, on a broader scale, in seeing healthy ecosystems supporting populations of amphibians, reptiles, and other biodiversity from coast to coast.