Tag Archive | "conservation planning"

Graphium sarpedon

Paying the Price of Extinction Debt

The fact that species are being lost at an unprecedented rate is not in dispute, but how can conservation biologists who are trying to create protected areas account for extinctions which are occurring today because of events in the past?

Extinction is a natural process, but the current rate of species loss – at least 100 times what would be expected under normal conditions1 – is anything but natural. It is common knowledge that species are being lost as a result of human activities, but the fact that extinctions can occur because of historical events as well as contemporary pressures is less well known. This phenomenon is called extinction debt2 and has been documented by researchers working in a range of habitats3, 4, 5.

When an area of habitat becomes fragmented, the isolated patches which remain are not able to support the same array of species as the intact site due to a reduction in the amount of available resources. Over time, many of the species trapped within the patch will die off until, eventually, a new equilibrium is reached and the patch is only occupied by the species that it is able to support. The time taken for equilibrium to be reached is known as “relaxation time”3, because the habitat patch is relaxing back to equilibrium after a considerable disturbance.

In 2012, researchers from Japan studied the diversity of butterflies in a range of habitat patches scattered across Tokyo. They discovered that existing species richness was more closely correlated with the habitat conditions of 1971 than present day habitat conditions5, an indication of an extinction debt that has yet to be paid. They also mapped the predicted extinction debt of different habitat patches and found that the loss of species from large patches is likely to be lower than the loss from small patches5.

Graphium sarpedon

Graphium sarpedon, the blue triangle butterfly, is frequently found in Tokyo, where Soga and Koike (2012) mapped the potential extinction debt of butterfly species found in habitat patches in urban environments.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Maps which indicate where biodiversity is likely to decline in the future can be used to inform prioritization. Instead of focusing limited resources on the protection of areas that are projected to lose biodiversity, conservation practitioners can more optimally focus their efforts on areas where species are more likely to persist into the future. Prioritization can even be based around the newly emerging concept of “conservation credit”6, which accounts for the colonization of newly suitable habitat by species from other areas.

However, it is important to remember that the disturbances and fragmentation leading to species loss through extinction debt are, in the majority of cases, the result of human activities. Extinction debt doesn’t just illustrate the complexity of the current biodiversity crisis; it emphasizes the importance of protecting habitat in the present in order to secure biodiversity into the future.

References:

1. Pimm, S.L., and C.N. Jenkins. 2005. Sustaining the Variety of Life. Scientific American 293: 66 – 73
2. Tilman, D., R.M. May, C.L. Lehman, and M.A. Novak. 1994. Habitat destruction and the extinction debt. Nature 317: 65 – 66
3. Diamond, J.M. 1972. Biogeographic kinetics: estimation of relaxation times for avifaunas of southwest Pacific islands. PNAS 69: 3199 – 3203
4. Krauss, J., R. Bommarco, M. Guardiola, R.K. Heikkinen, A. Helm, M. Kuussaari, and R. Lindborg. 2010. Habitat fragmentation causes immediate and time‐delayed biodiversity loss at different trophic levels. Ecology Letters 13: 597 – 605
5. Soga, M. and S. Koike. 2012. Mapping the potential extinction debt of butterflies in a modern city: implications for conservation priorities in urban landscapes. Animal Conservation 16: 1 – 11
6. Vellend. M., and H.M. Kharouba. 2013. Setting conservation priorities when what you see is not what you get. Animal Conservation 16: 14 – 15

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Sage Grouse Crossing

A Conservation Checklist for Sage-Grouse

The greater sage-grouse has been of conservation concern for more than 100 years, when both locals and visiting naturalists first observed population declines. Conservationists began advocating for protection for the species 15 years ago and, after a “convoluted journey” through the federal Endangered Species Act listing process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will finally consider the species for listing in 2015.

This date certain for a listing decision has compelled a multitude of federal and state agencies and local entities to finally develop conservation strategies to protect and recover sage-grouse and their habitat. Defenders of Wildlife is heavily engaged in these planning processes. We are analyzing thousands of pages of documents and working to improve federal and state conservation strategies for the species. To this end, we have developed a science-based checklist to evaluate planning efforts.

A successful sage-grouse conservation plan will include, at a minimum, the following measures to ensure sage-grouse conservation. They are based on sage-grouse and sagebrush ecology, as well as key principles of conservation biology of protecting and managing habitat to conserve species. The checklist also addresses three sage-grouse habitat categories—“priority,” “restoration” and “general” habitat—that federal and state agencies have already defined for sage-grouse planning purposes.

  1. Identify, designate and preserve priority habitat essential to sage-grouse conservation and restoration. The first rule for conserving imperiled species is to prevent continued loss and degradation of habitat essential for the species persistence. This is especially important for sage-grouse, which are highly sensitive to disturbance, particularly in their breeding, nesting and brood-rearing habitat. Protecting winter habitat is also critical for sage-grouse conservation.
  2. Create and expand existing protected areas critical to sage-grouse and sagebrush conservation. Some proportion of remaining sage-grouse range is so important for conservation that it should be protected and specially managed as permanent reserves for sage-grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. These can include new and expanded national wildlife refuges; Congressional designations, such as wilderness and national conservation areas; and administrative allocations, like areas of critical environmental concern. A reserve system should protect large expanses of sagebrush steppe, important seasonal habitats and connectivity, and the system should be large enough to achieve the goals of biological representation, and ecological redundancy and resiliency.
  3. Designate restoration habitat to focus habitat restoration efforts. Restoration habitat is degraded or fragmented habitat that may not be currently occupied by sage-grouse, but might support the species if restored. Land managers should target passive and active habitat restoration efforts in these areas to extend current sage-grouse range and mitigate for future loss of priority habitat.
  4. Reduce and mitigate threats in sage-grouse general habitat, outside of priority habitat, protected areas, and restoration habitat. The goal for managing general habitat is to support habitat connectivity and increase sage-grouse populations within and outside of the other sage-grouse habitat designations.
  5. Develop adaptive management plans with sciencedriven triggers that indicate when management is not leading to desired outcomes. Plans should institute adequate, consistent, objective-driven monitoring keyed to appropriate indicators that provide the information needed for adaptive management—and then require changes when current management fails to meet conservation objectives.

These simple, sensible precepts, if adopted and implemented across sage-grouse range, would provide a basis for sage-grouse restoration in theWest. We encourage Defenders’ members and supporters to participate in the current planning process for greater sage-grouse. Navigating these bulky, intimidating, but vitally important conservation plans will be far more manageable with our conservation checklist in hand.

Sage Grouse Crossing

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Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

Preserving the Genetic Diversity of Endangered Species

How can conservationists prioritize species that are already classified as endangered? The answer to this difficult question might just be hidden inside the genes of the endangered species themselves.

Conservation resources might be finite, but the threats to our natural world are not. With so many species struggling to survive, it is more important than ever for conservationists to use their limited funding in the most effective (and efficient) way possible. But how are conservationists supposed to decide which endangered species should be given top priority? In the past, the value of a species – whether economic or social – was the dominant factor when it came to directing funding. In recent years, however, the science of prioritization has become an increasingly important aspect of conservation biology1. One emerging form of scientific prioritization focuses on a relatively new way of measuring the value of a species: their genetic uniqueness.

Genetic uniqueness, also known as evolutionary distinctiveness, is a way of prioritizing species that takes into account the relationships between species groups. According to this method, a species with a lot of close relatives should not be prioritized over a species with no close relatives, which will have been designated its own branch in the tree of life. While every species is genetically unique, most species share some of their genes with their close relatives. (Just look at chimpanzee and bonobos, which share 99.6% of their DNA with each other and 98.7% of their DNA with another close relative, humanity2.) This means that species with few or no close relatives contain genes that can’t be found in any other species.

Darwin's Tree of Life

Charles Darwin’s preliminary sketches of the tree of life were some of the earliest attempts to establish the relationship between species. By using our modem understanding of these relationships, scientists can prioritize genetically unique species for conservation.

Source: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/

Why are genes so important when it comes to setting priorities for conservation? Genes are the building blocks of life. They determine the characteristics of a species and, through the process of natural selection, help species to adapt to future conditions3. By preserving genetically unique species instead of lots of genetically similar species, conservationists stand a better chance of maintaining the essential foundations of ecosystems that are ready to survive whatever the future has in store. Given the uncertainties of climate change, this adaptability will be even more important in the decades to come.

Although it would be naïve to assume that conservation can take place without taking into account the social and economic aspects of conservation, studies have shown that species with a high level of genetic uniqueness are actually more threatened than other species4, 5, 6.Whatever method of prioritization is favored, time is of the essence when it comes to conserving the genetic heritage of the species that share our planet.

References:

1. Game, E.T., P. Kareiva, and H.P. Possingham. 2013. Six Common Mistakes in Conservation Priority Setting. Conservation Biology 27: 480 – 485
2. Science Now. 2012. Bonobos Join Chimps as Closest Human Relatives. Available at: http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/06/bonobo-genome-sequenced.html/ [Accessed 2/7/2013]
3. Crozier, R., P-M. Agapow , and M.A. Smith. 2009. Conservation genetics: from species to habitats. Biology International 47: 73 – 79
4. Redding, D.W., and A.Ø. Mooers. 2006. Incorporating Evolutionary Measures into Conservation Prioritization. Conservation Biology 20: 1670 – 1678
5. Daru, B.H., K. Yessoufou, L.T. Mankga, and T.J. Davies. 2013. A Global Trend Towards the Loss of Evolutionarily Unique Species in Mangrove Ecosystems. PLoS ONE 8: e66686
6. Isaac, N.J., S.T. Turvey, B. Collen, C. Waterman, and J.E. Baillie. 2007. Mammals on the EDGE: Conservation Priorities Based on Threat and Phylogeny. PLoS ONE 6: e296

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Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

Defenders Comments on New Forest Planning Directives

As long time followers know, Defenders has been working hard to shape National Forest conservation policy for decades, including non-stop campaigning for the last several years to make sure new forest planning regulations conserve and recover forest dependent wildlife.  To ensure that these new rules translate into real on-the-ground protections for wildlife and forest ecosystems, Defenders kicked off our Forests for Wildlife Initiative.  The goal of the initiative is to transform how the Forest Service manages forests for wildlife, and to protect and restore national forest landscapes through on-the-ground conservation projects and actions.

The Forests for Wildlife Initiative takes us from the policymaking world of Washington D.C., to the majestic landscapes of Alaska and California.  Last year, I was appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture to a Federal Advisory Committee charged with overseeing implementation of the new planning rule.  One of the committee’s first tasks was to work with the Forest Service to craft policy “directives” that will guide how the new regulation is interpreted and applied to individual national forests.  Our comments on the draft directives can be found here.  The complex forest policy world is like an onion trapped in a spider’s web.  Numerous statutes govern the management of National Forests, including the National Forest Management Act, as well as associated federal rules and regulations.  Keep peeling and one finally gets down to the highly technical internal agency policies that tell forest managers how to navigate and implement all of the various rules and regulations.  The directives tell managers “how” to do the “what”— the requirements that are spelled out in the regulations.  Good planning directives provide strong, clear direction to managers on how to identify, conserve and monitor species of conservation concern; account for ecosystem services; or manage in the face of climate change.  Poor directives can lead to inconsistent conservation decisions that could lessen protections and raise risks for forests and wildlife.

The current draft directives need some work to provide forest managers a clear path to effectively conserving forest integrity and wildlife.  The advisory committee will be working with the Forest Service all summer to make recommendations on how to improve them.  Stay tuned for more updates and campaign reports from the Forests for Wildlife Initiative.

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Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

Incorporating Climate Change into the New Forest Planning Rule

For much of the past two years, Defenders has been actively engaged in the Forest Service’s development of a new rule to guide planning within the National Forest System. We submitted extensive comments on last year’s proposed rule, but that was hardly the end of our involvement.  The Forest Service is now in the process of drafting “directives” to guide the implementation of the 2012 planning rule. As with the rule itself, we have quite a few suggestions for making it stronger, better and more clear (our full comments on the directives can be found here). This week’s blog installment focuses on incorporation of climate change.

The Forest Service has been a leader in understanding, researching, and developing policy mechanisms to deal with the impacts of climate change.  The planning rule itself broke new ground in directing forests to take into account the effects of climate change on ecosystem integrity and to incorporate climate change resilience into forest planning. We had expected, therefore, that the Directives would build on that track record and provide forest managers with clear direction on how to integrate assessment and response to climate change impacts into all phases of forest planning.  Unfortunately, the Directives don’t do much more than repeat some of the language from the planning rule itself.

Virtually absent from the directives is any clear description of the particular exposure factors associated with climate change, such as higher mean temperatures, hotter high temperatures, reduction in frost-free days, changing proportions of precipitation falling as rain vs. snow,  occurrences of extreme precipitation events, alterations in snowpack, and lengthier periods of drought (to name a few). Many species and habitats will be sensitive to one or more of these specific types of exposures, but there is no guidance on how select, evaluate or rank these. Climate-related stressors will also interact with other stressors (for instance, warmer winters may facilitate spread of invasive or noxious species that are held in check by winter die-off). Societal responses to climate change will also likely compound stresses to species and ecosystems (some examples include increased water withdrawals from stream systems in response to drought and heat, and habitat modification to reduce fire risk at the wildland-urban interface). Nowhere do the directives recommend how to find, evaluate, and use this information in forest planning.

The directives also fail to give forest managers a path for selecting appropriate responses. This is a pretty glaring omission, given that the Forest Service has already published extensive resources on various adaptation response options: resistance, resilience, response, and re-alignment. We had hoped that the directives would provide managers with a means to choose among these responses and select plan components to achieve those aims, but it does not do so.

Even worse, the directives at times seem to give managers an easy way out of doing the hard thinking about responding to climate change. For instance, the “Ecosystem Integrity” section of the assessment language says, “Where information is available, the responsible official should consider the influence of climate change. . .” (emphasis added). Later, the directives use climate change as an example of “factors outside of the agency’s control.” We are concerned that conditional language like this is tantamount to allowing planners an excuse to avoid the sometimes difficult task of finding and evaluating climate change information that may be applicable to the situation at hand. We see a high potential for this kind of omission to occur, given that the directives have provided so little guidance on where to find climate change information and how to incorporate it into assessment.

Defenders has submitted comments to the Forest Service pointing out these and other flaws in the directives, which will make it difficult for forest planners to realize the planning rule’s potential benefits to biodiversity over time. Stay tuned to find out if they take our recommendations into account.

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How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

How Will the Forest Service Address Ecosystem Services in Forest Planning?

The Forest Service recently adopted new planning rule that will guide the agency’s process for forest planning for the next decade or so. For the first time, the planning rule directs the staff to consider ecosystem services when deciding what management actions to implement on the public lands. Following the adoption of the new rule, the Service issued 500+ pages of detailed “directives” to guide implementation of the new planning rule.

What are ecosystem services?  According to a recent article authored by several researchers with the Forest Service in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, In the context of public land management, ecosystem services are beneficial outcomes that derive from landscape conditions (e.g., forest structures, species compositions) and ecological processes as they are altered by both natural disturbance and management activities.

Though the draft directives mention ecosystem services multiple times, what effect this relatively new term will have on the planning process remains somewhat of a mystery. On the positive side, addressing ecosystem services may lead to the consideration of a much broader spectrum of values, including some tangible benefits like improved water and air quality, more and better fish and wildlife habitat, improvement in the condition of endangered species, and additional opportunities for nature-based recreation. The new emphasis may also lead to improved integration across programs, a reconsideration of management “targets” to include an assessment of ecological conditions and trends, and an improved understanding of context implied in the new “all lands approach” to management.  Ecosystem services assessments can also be a powerful tool for collaboration with stakeholders. Ideally, incorporating ecosystem services into forest planning will add value without overly complicating the assessment and decision process, raising the costs, or delaying implementation.

On the flip side, even a great idea can go astray if it is implemented in a manner that simply applies a new idea or term to an old way of doing business. The Forest Service staff will always be under political pressure from Congress and some interest groups to increase the output of commodities at the expense of protecting the ecological values on the land. Framed entirely as a utilitarian, anthropocentric concept, some interpret ecosystem services to include only benefits to human communities. Others extend the construct even further to emphasize only those values that can be quantified, and a cottage industry has emerged among economists offering tools and methods to assign monetary value to selected services. While it is sometimes very useful to calculate the monetary costs and benefits of different management options, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to apply dollar values to relatively intangible attributes like biodiversity.  Agencies can and do make decisions every day based on society’s evolving values and preferences, expressed in a variety of ways including the adoption of federal laws like the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act. Meaningful engagement with the public during the decision process – including local, state, regional, and national interests – can lead to decisions that balance human needs for products like timber, forage and fuel against the need to sustain the lands and waters on public lands for future generations.

Given the attention that ecosystem services have received within academic and some government circles, there is also a risk that instead of adding value to the complex process of evaluating the potential benefits an ecosystem will provide over time, an entirely new process will be established.  If this new process focuses primarily on the benefits that ecosystems provide to people, without giving adequate consideration to the underlying ecological attributes and processes that create these services in the first place, then management to maximize certain ecosystem services ends up competing with, rather than enhancing values that are especially challenging to measure, like biodiversity. If ecosystem services offer a way of viewing the world in which the intrinsic values of nature are acknowledged along with utilitarian outputs, it could serve as a uniting rather than divisive force.  However, there will always be tradeoffs between services, human beneficiaries, and the needs of present vs. future generations.

There are a few important steps that the Forest Service can take to ensure that the ecosystem services requirement in the new directives has a positive influence on forest planning.

  1. Adopt the definition of ecosystem services quoted above in place of the narrower definition limited by utility to humans, thereby explicitly including biodiversity – either as a service, necessary support for services, or both.
  2. Integrate ecosystem service assessments with ecological assessments rather than creating a separate process.
  3. Ensure that the planning process is as interdisciplinary as possible, taking advantage of the expertise of natural and social scientists, practitioners, and stakeholders, working across traditional boundaries and engaging people with diverse perspectives.
  4. Working with other agencies and organizations, invest in the development of more consistent measures of ecological integrity and biodiversity across jurisdictions and at multiple scales to improve our collective capacity understand ecological conditions and trends.
  5. Integrate the ecosystem services assessments with the “all lands” approach by engaging private landowners and other agencies in the process, before attempting to quantify and/or monetize ecosystem services at the project or site scale.

The Forest Service has struggled with communicating its mission over the past few decades. Creatively applying an ecosystem services approach to explain the benefits of the public lands to Congress and the public has great potential. Although different forests will likely approach this challenge differently, the new approach may create a pathway to a more harmonious and effective relationship with the public.  Or it may continue the divisive and antagonistic relationship under a new banner until the next shiny object comes into view. There isn’t much time to get it right.

You can find Defenders’ full comments on the proposed forest planning directives here.

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“Carrying capacity”: What Can Managed Relocation Do For Climate Adaptation?

A recent paper co-authored by Defenders President and CEO Jamie Clark highlights the conflicting and complex aspects of managed relocation, a conservation measure where species, populations, or genotypes are intentionally introduced outside of their historical range for the purpose of maintaining biological diversity or ecosystem functioning.  In the context of the paper, it is considered as an adaptation strategy to climate change, but it could also be a strategy for other types of conservation planning.

This is a valuable paper, especially because it summarizes very well the many potential problems and the conflicting issues with managed relocation, and how they relate to a possible and much needed future policy to guide such process. The authors state that, while managed relocation has been happening intentionally and non-intentionally around the world, many issues exist that would need to be addressed once this strategy starts being considered more often.  Problems and conflicts span the ethical, scientific, and cultural fields, and the authors stress the point that evidence to support managed relocation decisions is essential.  They mention the need of using decision theory to weigh such scientific, ethical, and cultural, as well as cost considerations, and call for collaborative efforts involving specialists that can effectively address the full range of said considerations.  They also bring up the issue of the accuracy of species distribution models under climate change, and their usefulness (or lack thereof) in predicting future ranges and habitats. Climate change is expected to affect the future range of many species due to its effects not only on the species themselves, but also on their habitats and essential interactions.  However, species distribution models do not account for the complexity of species interactions and needs, or for the maintenance of essential ecosystem services and processes in which each species is involved.  Caution is needed when using that type of data to inform managed relocation.

The question remains of what “appropriate managed relocation actions” (and/or “efforts”) are, but the paper cites some general criteria to help determine the appropriateness of a managed relocation action (e.g., when data suggest that the extinction risk of a species without relocation is high, relocation is feasible, and the relocation is unlikely to cause substantial harm to the proposed site).  The paper includes a list of key ethical, ecological, legal and policy, and integrated questions to base a decision framework on managed relocation.  Questions such as “which conservation goals take ethical precedence over others and why?”, “what are the limits of less dramatic alternatives to managed relocation, such as increasing habitat connectivity?”, and “what constitutes an acceptable risk of harm and what are adequate measures for the protection of recipient ecosystems?” can effectively help guide the decision making process.  Together with their recommendations, these questions provide very good guidance for a future policy regulating managed relocation.

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Bringing Better Tools to the Study of Sea Level Rise

A thorny problem for climate change adaptation is figuring out how to sort through projections and uncertainties to make a better determination of what impacts to expect. Two studies – one newly published, the other just underway – show promise for a better understanding, and therefore a more informed response, to the problem of sea level rise and its impacts on coastal ecosystems in California.

One of the more challenging issues related to climate change is the extent and timing of future sea level rise. While there is broad consensus that ocean levels will rise this century, due to a combination of melting of land-based ice, and the thermal expansion of ocean waters, it is very difficult to estimate the rate of this rise: for instance the 2007 IPCC report authors decided that they didn’t have enough information to determine the effects of changes in polar ice sheets, so they left them out of their projections. Since that time, scientists have refined measures to estimate the climate change impacts on the rate of flow of large ice sheets. Thus, while the IPCC’s 2007 sea level rise estimation was eight inches to two feet by the end of the century, by 2009 the US Global Change Research Program projected 3-4 feet of average sea level rise worldwide.

However, the story is not as simple as that. Sea level rise will have different impacts in different areas, depending on whether the land is also undergoing a natural subsidence (as is the case in the Chesapeake Bay region, where the land is still settling after the last Ice Age), and also on the amount of sediment being carried to coastal areas by the region’s river systems (for instance, multiple upstream dams deprive the Mississippi delta of much-needed sediments). Thus, predicting the future of a given marsh, for instance, is a function of both sea level rise and the relative rate of natural sediment accretion or subsidence. In a new study published in PLoS One, researchers at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory combined the best-available knowledge about rates of sediment deposition with scenarios for sea level rise to ascertain possible futures for the San Francisco Bay. They found that under the worst-case scenario, with high sea level rise (5 feet) and low levels of accretion of sediment and organic matter, the San Francisco Bay could lose 93% of its existing marsh within 50 to 100 years (human activities have already reduced tidal marsh in the Bay by about 90% from its historic extent). However, the authors also note that this worst-case outcome can be avoided by “conserving adjacent uplands for marsh migration, redistributing dredged sediment to raise elevations, and concentrating restoration efforts in sediment-rich areas.” They have developed a planning tool to help conservation practitioners where and when these changes would take place, to better inform restoration and land acquisition decisions.

The second study, recently announced by the California and North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, will examine the impacts of sea level rise at five National Wildlife Refuges from Humboldt Bay in northern California, to Tijuana Slough near San Diego. The study, the first of its kind to monitor SLR impacts in such detail over such a long stretch of coastline, will “develop high-resolution digital elevation models (DEMs); monitor water levels and tidal cycles to assess local-level inundation patterns; inventory vegetation species composition and relationship to elevation and tides; and quantify sensitive wildlife use at all five refuges.”

Coastal marshes are incredibly productive habitats that supply food and shelter to a array of birds and other wildlife, and serve as nurseries for many ecologically and commercially important species. Already greatly diminished by shoreline development, pollution and activities like dredging and ditching, these systems are also on the front lines of the impacts of climate change. These new tools may hold the key to helping managers and planners enable marshes to adapt to and move with the rising sea.

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chain for newsletter

Workshop Participants Build Their Land Trust’s Vision of Climate Change Adaptation

Workshop participants at Maryland's land trust conference build their situtation analysis for their target habitats.

In discussions about the role of land trusts in implementing climate change adaptation strategies, many have suggested that most of what land trusts do is already adaptation, while others have expressed the contrary opinion that adaptation is not “business as usual” for land trusts. Others worry that adaptation planning will take a lot of time and resources away from the day-to-day work of saving land. And others feel there is not yet enough information to start planning for how they will adapt their work to this new reality. These differing ideas can be confusing and discouraging.

To help get past this confusion, Defenders’ Living Lands facilitated workshops at the most recent Southeast Regional, Virginia, and Maryland land trust conferences to help the land trust community and their partners define their own vision for helping their communities adapt in the face of climate change.

The goal of this facilitated workshop was to demonstrate a quick and inexpensive process by which land trusts can begin to envision how climate change adaptation fits into their land conservation mission.

In this participatory workshop, the Defenders’ facilitated an exercise to build a common understanding of the biological, social, economic, political, and institutional systems that affect their conservation priorities. This process, called a “situation analysis”, is described in Step 1 of the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation. The Open Standards were developed by the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) to bring together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

Planning for climate change adaptation will require that land trusts assess the drivers (e.g. air and water temperature increases, precipitation changes, sea level rise, species shifts in ranges) and the indirect and direct threats (e.g. floods, human responses, drought, invasive species outbreaks) to their conservation values under climate change. A “situation analysis” is a useful tool for documenting the drivers and threats affecting a biodiversity target as well as for identifying conservation actions that can be applied to contributing factors, direct threats, or even biodiversity targets.

We began the exercise by identifying the biodiversity targets as the habitat types used in the State Wildlife Action Plans of the southeastern US. For each habitat type we identified direct threats (which we cross-walked with the Standardized Threats Taxonomy developed by the CMP).

Using the US Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast report and the Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity, we identified the contributing factors related to climate change (i.e. climate change drivers) that lead to the direct threats and stresses on the target habitats. Contributing factors are often the entry points for conservation action (although actions may work through direct threats or even the target in some cases).

Then we identified how altered climate conditions link to direct threats using intermediate contributing factors. The facilitators helped the participants think through the causal relationships linking the altered climate conditions to the direct threats. The following thought process was helpful: Altered climate conditions result in this contributing factor which results in this direct threat which affects [via a stress] this target.

We were sure to discuss interactions between the altered climate conditions and non-climate-related threats (e.g. urban development). We identified potential relationships between climate factors and impacts on biological systems such as species range shifts, seasonal shifts, and disrupted biotic interactions. Ultimately the process of building the conceptual model assisted the group in identifying intervention points, or adaptation strategies.

The conceptual model shows the state of the world before taking action; the next step is for participants to think about adaptation strategies and the anticipated outcomes that will ultimately impact the habitat target. Participants identified broad categories of climate change adaptation strategies (e.g., outreach, policy, land protection, stewardship) and then described specific strategies that would reduce the effects of a contributing factor or direct threat on the habitat target.

In the example causal-relationships chain, yellow hexigons show adaptation strategies that intervene on contributing factors (orange) or direct threats (pink) to reduce stress on target habitats (green).

We talked about which strategies participants felt were most likely to achieve the desired outcome and which they felt were the most relevant to their land conservation work. We found it useful to consider several factors when evaluating strategies including: the likelihood the strategy will be successful, the feasibility of the strategy, the cost of the strategy, and the gap the strategy would address. Participants also identified the sources of uncertainty associated with the strategies (e.g., uncertainty associated with the direction/magnitude of altered climate conditions, the biophysical impact, or the outcome of the strategy).

As a wrap-up exercise, the group discussed what they felt were the opportunities and barriers to implementing some of the adaptation strategies they had identified. Many felt that the public’s skepticism about climate change and lack of funding were the largest barriers. But they also felt that the issue of climate change was potentially an opportunity to reinforce community support for their land conservation activities. Many participants felt the exercise was helpful to their thinking about climate change adaptation and thought they would use this process to initiate discussions with their organizations and stakeholders about climate change adaptation.

 

References and Resources 

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2007. Using Results Chains to Improve Strategy Effectiveness. An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success, Bethesda, MD.

Foundations of Success (FOS). 2009. Using Conceptual Models to Document a Situation Analysis: An FOS How-To Guide. Foundations of Success Bethesda, MD.

Geyer, J. et al . 2011. Classification of Climate-Change-Induced Stresses on Biological Diversity.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007. Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – Synthesis Report

Salasfsky, N., D. Salzer, A. J. Stattersfield, C. Hilton-Taylor, R. Neugarten, S. H. M. Butchart, B. Collen, N. Cox, L. L. Master, S. O’Connor, and D. Wilkie. 2008. A standard lexicon for biodiversity conservation: Unified classifications of threats and actions. Conservation Biology 22: 897-911.

U.S. Global Change Research Program, Thomas R. Karl, Jerry M. Melillo, and Thomas C. Peterson, (eds.) 2009 Climate Change Effects from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, Regional Climate Impacts: Southeast.

US Global Change Research Program, Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Regions and Sectors.

A full summary of the workshop with lists of strategies and the situation analyses is available here.

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Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part II: Why Identifying the Problem can be the Biggest Challenge

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (Part II of a three part series)

Defining your decision problem is the first, most important, but  often most difficult  and overlooked step in a conservation planning process. 

A decision is as an outcome of a thought process that leads to a course of actions (among many possible actions).  A decision is many times an irrevocable allocation of resources.

What decisions do we need to make during a planning process? Values and Visions: What do we care about, and what do we want the future to look like if we are successful in our mission?  Priorities: Are some conservation values are more important to us than others? Stakeholders: Who has power and interest in what decisions we make?  If our projects are land-based, where are our conservation values located on the landscape? Strategies: What actions are we going to take to reach our conservation goals? Implementation: Who is responsible for each action and by when do we want them to implement? Monitoring: How are we going to measure our success towards meeting our conservation goals? Adaptive Management: How do we learn from our projects and readjust our strategies as needed?

Why are decisions are hard? Uncertainty: We feel we don’t have all the information we need to make conservation decisions.  Complexity: We need to consider many interrelated factors. High-risk consequences: The impact of the decision may be significant and costly. Alternatives: We may have many alternative projects with each its own set of uncertainties and consequences to weigh. Controversy: It can be difficult to predict how other people will react to our decisions?

Part 3 will describe how to define the decision problem to get off on the right foot with conservation planning.

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Getting Off on the Right Foot with Conservation Planning Part I: Why plan?

Conservation planning is a decision-making process to identify, prioritize, pursue, and protect conservation priorities in a way that will most effectively and efficiently achieve a goal.  (First in a three part series)

Why plan? Just to name a few reasons: Planning builds organizational consensus over the selection of projects and allows the organization to be more proactive. Planning improves outreach to the community by stating the values of the organization or agency and by rigorously reviewing projects for public benefits.  Planning improves chances for success with funding programs that rely on criteria for selecting successful applicants. Planning helps with vetting conservation projects for their long-term suitability to meet the mission. Planning makes conservation decisions more defensible to withstand scrutiny by outside parties and the community in general.

Seems logical enough, no?  Then why is even the idea of undertaking a conservation planning process is a seemingly overwhelming task for both small and large conservation organizations and agencies alike?  Even though we know that we need conservation planning to move us from being opportunistic  (taking projects as they  come through the door) to being more strategic (figuring out a decision process for selecting actions that will be the most effective at meeting conservation goals), we can’t seem to muster the time, energy, or resources to begin the journey.  The notion of embarking on a lengthy and complicated process, taking time away from the “real work” of conservation, and stretching limited resources even further can be a strong deterrent from planning. 

So, it seems, if we are going to plan, we should make the process as useful as possible.  No one wants to think they are being more strategic because we have a plan, then to realize down the road that their plans are not useful in the end. We all know it is pointless to go through the process of developing plans that are not being used to guide our decisions, yet it happens all of the time.  Many times it happens because the process is flawed from the beginning.

Planning Parts 2 will describe why identifying a decision problem is the biggest challenge, but one of the most important initial steps in the planning process. Planning Part 3 will describe how to define the decision-problem.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.

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