Conservation Genetics

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 115–134 | Cite as

Improving conservation policy with genomics: a guide to integrating adaptive potential into U.S. Endangered Species Act decisions for conservation practitioners and geneticists

  • W. C. FunkEmail author
  • Brenna R. Forester
  • Sarah J. Converse
  • Catherine Darst
  • Steve Morey
Review Article


Rapid environmental change makes adaptive potential—the capacity of populations to evolve genetically based changes in response to selection—more important than ever for long-term persistence of at-risk species. At the same time, advances in genomics provide unprecedented power to test for and quantify adaptive potential, enabling consideration of adaptive potential in estimates of extinction risk and laws protecting endangered species. The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) is one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world, but so far, the full potential of genomics in ESA listing and recovery decisions has not been realized by the federal agencies responsible for implementing the ESA or by conservation geneticists. The goal of our paper is to chart a path forward for integrating genomics into ESA decision making to facilitate full consideration of adaptive potential in evaluating long-term risk of extinction. For policy makers, managers, and other conservation practitioners, we outline why adaptive potential is important for population persistence and what genomic tools are available for quantifying it. For conservation geneticists, we discuss how federal agencies can integrate information on the effect of adaptive potential on extinction risk—and the related uncertainty—into decisions, and suggest next steps for advancing understanding of the effect of adaptive potential on extinction risk. The mechanisms and consequences of adaptation are incredibly complex, and we may never have a complete understanding of adaptive potential for any organism. Nevertheless, we argue that the best available evidence regarding adaptive potential can now be incorporated by federal agencies into modeling and decision making processes, while at the same time conserving genome-wide variation and striving for a deeper understanding of adaptive potential and its effects on population persistence to improve decision making into the future.


Adaptation Genomics U.S. Endangered Species Act Conservation policy Extinction risk 



We first thank A. Rus Hoelzel for inviting WCF to the Discussion Meeting at Durham University in September 2017 on “Conserving Adaptive Potential and Functional Diversity.” Without Rus’ initiative and perseverance in organizing this meeting, we would not have been spurred to assemble the diverse team of coauthors needed to bring together the ideas outlined here. We also thank Robin Waples and Gordon Luikart for excellent suggestions for improving the manuscript. We acknowledge funding from Colorado State University and National Science Foundation Ecology of Infectious Diseases Grant (DEB 1413925). The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and its text is not subject to copyright protection in the United States; however, its text may be subject to foreign copyright protection 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. C. Funk
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Brenna R. Forester
    • 1
  • Sarah J. Converse
    • 3
  • Catherine Darst
    • 4
  • Steve Morey
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of BiologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Graduate Degree Program in EcologyColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.U.S. Geological Survey, Washington Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) & School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences (SAFS)University of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  4. 4.U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServiceVenturaUSA
  5. 5.U.S. Fish and Wildlife ServicePortlandUSA

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