Enhancing ecosystem restoration efficiency through spatial and temporal coordination
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
In many large ecosystems, conservation projects are selected by a diverse set of actors operating independently at spatial scales ranging from local to international. Although small-scale decision making can leverage local expert knowledge, it also may be an inefficient means of achieving large-scale objectives if piecemeal efforts are poorly coordinated. Here, we assess the value of coordinating efforts in both space and time to maximize the restoration of aquatic ecosystem connectivity. Habitat fragmentation is a leading driver of declining biodiversity and ecosystem services in rivers worldwide, and we simultaneously evaluate optimal barrier removal strategies for 661 tributary rivers of the Laurentian Great Lakes, which are fragmented by at least 6,692 dams and 232,068 road crossings. We find that coordinating barrier removals across the entire basin is nine times more efficient at reconnecting fish to headwater breeding grounds than optimizing independently for each watershed. Similarly, a one-time pulse of restoration investment is up to 10 times more efficient than annual allocations totaling the same amount. Despite widespread emphasis on dams as key barriers in river networks, improving road culvert passability is also essential for efficiently restoring connectivity to the Great Lakes. Our results highlight the dramatic economic and ecological advantages of coordinating efforts in both space and time during restoration of large ecosystems.