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Biodiversity & Species Conservation

Sustaining New York's Animals, Plants and Ecosystems

The Importance of Biodiversity

Biodiversity refers to the total variety of life on Earth, or the total variety of life in a given area.

The biodiversity of New York includes all the different species of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms and bacteria living in the state. No one knows the total number of species in New York. There are tens of thousands of species of plants and animals alone (including 4,000 beetles), and more species are being discovered every day. The biodiversity of New York also includes genetic differences among individuals of the same species. Additionally, it includes communities of plants and animals that occur together.

Conserving as many plants and animals as possible is important for the benefit of humans and of other species. Individual species help meet our basic needs; for example:

  • Animals and plants provide food and materials for clothing, shelter, and fuel.
  • Insects pollinate crops and control agricultural pests.
  • Plants produce the oxygen we breathe, and are the source for many medicines.
  • Microorganisms decompose waste products and recycle nutrients.

Each species is a unique part of our natural world and cannot be replaced if lost. We rely on biodiversity for enjoyment, recreation, and spiritual fulfillment.

Threats to Biodiversity

Today, the most significant threats to New York's biodiversity include:

  • habitat destruction, alteration and fragmentation;
  • the spread of invasive species;
  • pollution;
  • illegal collection; and
  • climate change.

During the last century, human impacts on our planet have led to an increasing and alarming loss of biodiversity. Scientists estimate that current extinction rates exceed those of prehistoric mass extinctions. Loss of biodiversity also means loss of genetic diversity and loss of ecosystems.

Loss of suitable habitat is the major cause for declines in species populations. Development, wetland filling, and other activities reduce the total amount of habitat. These activities also fragment remaining forest, grassland, and wetland habitat into patches too small and too isolated to support some animal species.

In addition, the spread of invasive non-native species has dramatically changed the composition of New York's lands and wildlife. They often reduce or replace native species populations. For example, the chestnut blight fungus from Asia nearly wiped out the American chestnut within 30 years. Now, this formerly common and tall tree is much reduced in number and in size.

Pollution has been greatly reduced over the last 40 years. However, acid rain, pesticides, and fertilizers still alter the chemical balance of New York's lakes and rivers to the detriment of fish and other aquatic life.

In the past, unregulated commercial hunting decimated populations of many species. This even led to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, once abundant in New York. Today, turtles and snakes continue to be poached and collected illegally for the pet trade. Worldwide, populations of many fish species are threatened by overharvesting.

Climate change may cause some species to shift their ranges out of New York State or to higher elevations. Other species may be able to adapt to the new conditions. Those species which cannot move or adapt may eventually disappear altogether.

Efforts to Conserve Biodiversity

While biodiversity includes every living thing, it is a priority to prevent the disappearance of endangered native species from New York State. Many of DEC's programs focus on these species and their habitats. Examples of DEC's efforts to conserve biodiversity can be found by using the links below.

Help for Pollinators

  • DEC, along with NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets and many environmental organizations, prepared a NYS Pollinator Protection Plan (PDF). It outlines steps everyone can take to increase the survival rate of critical plant pollinators.
  • Find out which native species you can plant in your garden to provide habitat for pollinators in the Pollinator Pathway Project (PDF) brochure.

Learn More about New York's Biodiversity

Available from DEC's Biodiversity Mapping page are two DEC mapping applications, New York Nature Explorer and Environmental Resource Mapper. They provide information on many aspects of the state's biodiversity.

How You Can Help Conserve New York's Biodiversity

  • Volunteer. Work alongside DEC staff, or provide DEC with your own observations to help us collect data on New York's wildlife resources. To learn about specific programs and how you can help contribute, visit the Citizen Science page.
  • Contribute to Return a Gift to Wildlife (RAGTW) on your tax return. To date, more than 250 projects have been totally or partially funded through RAGTW. Many of these projects would not have been possible without the generous contributions from you!

More about Biodiversity & Species Conservation:

  • Habitat Conservation Assistance Programs - A summary of state and federal habitat conservation assistance programs available.
  • Citizen Science: Wildlife Observation Data Collection - Opportunities to help DEC collect data about New York's wildlife resource.
  • Endangered Species - New York State's program to protect and promote Endangered, Threatened and Special Concern Species
  • Fish and Wildlife Species Restorations - There have been several major success stories of wildlife restoration in New York. See success stories and view recovery plans for several species.
  • Landowner Incentive Program - The Landowner Incentive Program focuses on managing privately-owned habitat by offering landowners technical advice and financial incentives to protect at-risk species.
  • Return a Gift to Wildlife - Return A Gift To Wildlife (RAGTW) was established by the legislature in 1982 to help provide additional funds to enhance DEC's fish and wildlife program.
  • Secretive Marsh Birds - DEC uses standardized methods to monitor secretive marsh birds throughout the state in order to provide wildlife managers with information about their population status.
  • State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) - The State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) serves as New York State's guiding document for managing and conserving species and habitats before they become too rare or costly to restore.
  • Biodiversity Mapping - Information about the Department's environmental mapping applications relating to biodiversity.
  • Environmental Monitoring - The Environmental Monitoring Section of the DFWMR Bureau of Habitat annually plans, carries out and reports on biological monitoring related to contaminant trackdown, fish consumption advisories, contaminated site cleanup, and biotic disturbances, such as fish kills, resulting from pesticides and other toxic substances in the aquatic environment.
  • Aquatic Habitat Protection - Biologists within the Bureau of habitat protect aquatic habitat by assessing and mitigating the adverse impacts of industrial cooling water use and hydroelectric generation on fish and wildlife resources in New York State.
  • Natural Heritage Areas Program - The goal of the New York Natural Areas Program is to provide state land managers with a tool to highlight and ensure the protection of rare plants, animals and significant natural communities on state-owned land.
  • New York Natural Heritage Program - The New York Natural Heritage Program facilitates conservation of New York's biodiversity by providing comprehensive information and scientific expertise on rare species and natural ecosystems to resource managers and other conservation partners.