Range contraction enables harvesting to extinction

Matthew G. Burgess, Christopher Costello, Alexa Fredston-Hermann, Malin L. Pinsky, Steven D. Gaines, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


Economic incentives to harvest a species usually diminish as its abundance declines, because harvest costs increase. This prevents harvesting to extinction. A known exception can occur if consumer demand causes a declining species’ harvest price to rise faster than costs. This threat may affect rare and valuable species, such as large land mammals, sturgeons, and bluefin tunas. We analyze a similar but underappreciated threat, which arises when the geographic area (range) occupied by a species contracts as its abundance declines. Range contractions maintain the local densities of declining populations, which facilitates harvesting to extinction by preventing abundance declines from causing harvest costs to rise. Factors causing such range contractions include schooling, herding, or flocking behaviors—which, ironically, can be predator-avoidance adaptations; patchy environments; habitat loss; and climate change. We use a simple model to identify combinations of range contractions and price increases capable of causing extinction from profitable overharvesting, and we compare these to an empirical review. We find that some aquatic species that school or forage in patchy environments experience sufficiently severe range contractions as they decline to allow profitable harvesting to extinction even with little or no price increase; and some high-value declining aquatic species experience severe price increases. For terrestrial species, the data needed to evaluate our theory are scarce, but available evidence suggests that extinction-enabling range contractions may be common among declining mammals and birds. Thus, factors causing range contraction as abundance declines may pose unexpectedly large extinction risks to harvested species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3945-3950
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 11 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.


  • Anthropogenic Allee effect
  • Biogeography
  • Endangered species
  • Hyperstable
  • Poaching


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