How much should we invest in learning as opposed to doing when it comes to conservation management in the face of great uncertainty? A common response to this vexed issue is simply to ignore the issue – we make the best decision that we can based on what we know (or don’t know) and trust our intuition. A better way is to apply a framework of structured decision making (SDM) to identify robust management strategies. How does this work? Consider how we applied this approach to develop a long-term management strategy for the invasive gray sallow willow up on the Bogong High Plains. The stakes are high with the prospect of this very invasive willow taking over an endangered alpine ecosystem. There is great uncertainty surrounding the available options and, looking into the future, this is compounded by a changing climate and shifting fire regimes.
Structured decision making involves working with key stakeholders involved in a problem to create an agreed framework around the decisions they need to make. The process we use involves setting a context, agreeing on objectives, listing the various available options to meet these objectives and devising ways to compare the costs and benefits of those options.
When working through the willow problem it emerged that the key decision to be made was the proportion of resources to allocate to: (a) the control of existing populations of willow in alpine bogs, (b) control of sub-alpine source populations, and (c) the acquisition of better information about willows that may serve as sources of colonists in the future.
Unless budgets increased substantially, investing in research or adaptive management to learn about the system and resolve key uncertainties (fire frequency, willow seed dispersal distance, bog vegetation recovery rate) would not improve our ability to manage the system. If budgets did increase substantially, learning about willow seed dispersal distance would contribute the most to improving management.
See Decision Point #67 for the complete story
Moore JL & MC Runge (2012). Combining Structured Decision Making and Value-of-Information Analyses to Identify Robust Management Strategies. Conservation Biology 2: 810–820.