Evidence and the conservation manager: what evidence does a manager need?

By Carly Cook (This article was first published in the June 2013 issue of Decision Point, The Monthly Magazine of the Environmental Decisions Group)

It’s often said that there’s a gap between conservation science and conservation management, that the work of conservation researchers either isn’t reaching managers or isn’t addressing the issues most relevant to managers. In the hope of generating new perspectives on this problem, we decided to ask park managers about the information they need to make decisions and whether or not they have that information available to them (Cook et al. 2012). Understanding managers’ views on evidence can provide important insights into how they can be best equipped to deal with complex conservation problems.

To collect this information we surveyed 100 conservation managers from Parks Victoria and the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage. First we asked them what were the most important pieces of information they needed in order to make informed decisions about managing biodiversity. We also asked which types of evidence they found useful for meeting their information needs. Then we asked managers (on a scale of 1 to 4) to rate:

  1. how important each piece of information is for making decisions,
  2. how useful they consider each of the different types of evidence for their decisions, and
  3. which types of evidence they actually have for the areas they manage.

Managers told us that the decisions they make are complex, and that there are lots of different pieces of information they needed to inform those decisions (Table 1). The different types of information could be roughly grouped into two categories:

  • information for the management of individual species or ecosystems, and
  • information to make strategic decisions about how to prioritise management activities.
Table 1. The different components of management decisions that managers report to be important when making decisions about biodiversity.

Components

Description

Information about managing individual species or ecosystems

Occurrence
Which species or ecosystems occur in the management area
Threats
The threatening process impacting on individual species or ecosystems
Management
The appropriate management actions to mitigate threats to individual taxa
Ecology
An understanding of the ecology of individual taxa relevant to management decisions
Effectiveness
An understanding of whether conservation targets are benefiting from management

Information about prioritizing management activities

Distribution
Where species or ecosystems are found within the management area
Significance
The legislative or local significance of species or ecosystems in the management area
Condition
The condition of species or ecosystems (e.g., population status)
Resources
The funding and/or personnel available to conduct management activities

They told us that they place the highest priority on questions of what (occurrence), where (distribution), why (threats), and how (management action) to manage species and ecosystems, rather than the more strategic questions about how to prioritise management activities (Fig. 1). It was less important to managers to understand the financial resources available for management and the ecology of the taxa they are managing (Fig. 1). These results suggest that on-ground managers have a tendency to think locally, taking a more simplistic view of their information needs, rather than thinking strategically and taking a more holistic view.

Given the complexity of management decisions, it’s not surprising that managers also told us they find a broad spectrum of evidence to be valuable when making management decisions, ranging from empirical data to the opinions of knowledgeable individuals (Table 2). The need for a diversity of evidence may arise from the fact that empirical evidence rarely considers the broader socio-political context in which management decisions are made. Therefore, managers must use other sources of knowledge to support crucial aspects of their management decisions.

“Managers do value science, but they have difficulty accessing the empirical evidence they want and need”

While it has been suggested that managers tend not to value empirical data, the managers we sampled told us that they consider empirical evidence the most useful information they have for making decisions (Fig. 2). Unfortunately, managers also reported having poor access to empirical evidence, but that the less useful types of evidence tend to be more readily available.

Table 2. The different types of evidence managers find useful for making decisions about the managing biodiversity.

Types of evidence

Description

Empirical evidence

Research
Peer-reviewed papers, consultant reports, masters and doctoral theses, etc
Population monitoring
Regular population monitoring data
Condition assessments
Quantitative assessments of population status or vegetation condition

Experience-based evidence

Anecdotal evidence
Information derived from the personal experience of protected area managers,
experts and community members

Syntheses of multiple evidence sources

Databases
Point location data (eg, species sighting recorded in the wildlife atlas) and vegetation mapping (e.g., geographic information system layers)
Management plans
General management plans for the protected area (eg, synthesizing multiple sources of evidence and setting out management priorities)
Specific management plans
Plans that address specific management issues (eg, recovery plans, fire management plans, invasive species management plans etc.)
Legislation
The State and Federal legislation and international agreements that management agencies have obligations to enact (eg, Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, Ramsar convention etc.)

Our results reveal that managers do value science, but that they have difficulty accessing the empirical evidence they want and need. What’s not clear is whether managers are less likely to have science available because they cannot access existing management- relevant research, or whether important questions remain unanswered. Efforts to increase the use of science by conservation managers would benefit by improving the processes by which research findings are delivered to managers.

The value of information (mean importance score ± SE) for the different components of a management decision, as reported by protected area managers. Importance scores of ≥ 3 indicate managers consider this information important to make management decisions about biodiversity conservation.

Figure 1. The value of information (mean importance score ± SE) for the different components of a management decision, as reported by protected area managers. Importance scores of ≥ 3 indicate managers consider this information important to make management decisions about biodiversity conservation.

Research findings need to be presented in a form that is accessible, timely, and can be readily understood by managers. This could be achieved through active communication between scientists and managers, through greater incentives to publish in open-access journals, and through research magazines such as Decision Point. (Watch out for a future issue of Decision Point where we discuss effective strategies for increasing the usefulness, and use, of science for conservation management.)

While managers reported that they often lacked the empirical evidence they would like for the areas they manage, on average individual managers still reported having access to two-thirds (68%) of the evidence they find valuable. Efforts to increase the availability of science to managers could make a big difference in making up this shortfall. However, managers tell us that they benefit from multiple lines of evidence, which can help them to adapt to the continually changing management context.

The utility of different types of evidence (mean usefulness score ± SE) to inform management decisions, as reported by protected area managers. Usefulness scores of ≥ 3 indicate managers consider this evidence valuable for making management decisions about biodiversity conservation.

Figure 2. The utility of different types of evidence (mean usefulness score ± SE) to inform management decisions, as reported by protected area managers. Usefulness scores of ≥ 3 indicate managers consider this evidence valuable for making management decisions about biodiversity conservation.

Managers will never have all the information they desire to inform their management decisions, but this study demonstrates that they make pragmatic assumptions about how to make the most of limited resources. Understanding how managers use information to make robust management decisions is a field of research that requires more attention. Information use will likely differ according to the context for management and the background and training of managers, especially in developing countries. However, our data suggest conservation decisions are more complex than is often acknowledged in the literature.

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