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NC State study asks kids to choose wildlife conservation priorities

May 04, 2016

North Carolina elementary students' priorities for which wildlife species to protect closely matched those of conservation biologists but differed significantly from adults' rankings, a North Carolina State University study found.

"If wildlife conservation's goal is to protect species for future generations, shouldn't we get kids involved? They're the ones who will live with the results of those decisions," said co-author Kathryn Stevenson, a postdoctoral research at NC State and former North Carolina science teacher.

Researchers surveyed a sample of more than 400 third- and fifth-graders from 16 public elementary school classrooms across the state. Children were asked to rank the importance of five wildlife attributes: species with declining numbers, species that are important in nature, wild animals that live nowhere else but North Carolina (endemic species), wild animals that people like to watch and wild animals that people like to eat. Students also chose how to divide a set amount of money to dedicate to conservation efforts for wildlife in each of the categories.

Assigning wildlife conservation money to each species helps make the point that priorities are important because funds are limited and it's not possible to protect all species equally, said lead author Kristin Frew, an NC State graduate student examining the value of wildlife species in North Carolina. Students in co-author Nils Peterson's Human Dimensions of Wildlife class helped with data collection.

The children's rankings looked a lot like those of conservation biologists. Kids' top priorities - and recipients of most money - were species with rapid population declines, followed by species that had important ecological roles. Wildlife that people like to eat were third on the kids' list, followed by endemic species.

Similar studies with adults have shown that they place a high value on endemic wildlife species that are found only in a particular area.

"I wouldn't say the results are surprising, but they are encouraging," said Stevenson, a former North Carolina science teacher. "It will be interesting to see if these priorities endure over time and whether kids can have an influence on their parents' ideas about wildlife conservation."
Note: An abstract of the paper follows.

"Are we working to save the species our children want to protect? Evaluating species attribute preferences among children"
Authors: Kristin Frew, M. Nils Peterson and Kathryn Stevenson, NC State University
Published: May 4, 2016 in Oryx

Abstract: As conservation resources decline and numbers of threatened species increase, prioritizing species for conservation is increasingly important, and prioritizing based on attributes may be the most efficient approach. Despite the importance of biodiversity as a legacy to future generations, children's preferences for species attributes have never been considered. We surveyed 3rd and 5th grade students, typically 8-10 years old, in North Carolina, USA, to determine how children prioritize conservation of species based on attributes. We asked the students to rank five species attributes, allocate money to species with each attribute, and choose between each species attribute and endemism in terms of their importance for conservation. Children prioritized species that are important in nature and those whose numbers are declining over species with other attributes, whereas research suggests that adults prioritize endemic species over most other types. Our results suggest children prioritize biodiversity conservation differently from adults, and in ways that may be more conducive to biodiversity conservation in cases where endemism is not directly related to species endangerment, and we suggest the perspectives of children be considered more fully within biodiversity conservation.

North Carolina State University

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