Turning Uncertainty into Useful Information for Conservation Decisions

Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Turning Uncertainty into Useful Information for Conservation Decisions

We routinely encounter uncertainty when we make decisions – from picking a new morning coffee to choosing where to live. Even decisions that are supported by science contain some level of remaining uncertainty, such that making choices may remain uncomfortable and challenging. Scientists from the USGS Georgia Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit (Georgia Unit), together with the Department of the Interior Southeast Climate Science Center (SE CSC) and other partners are developing tools that decision makers can use to more formally account for uncertainties when moving forward with conservation and resource management.

Santa Fe River, Florida

Uncertainty inherently arises from incomplete or imperfect information. Our own societal uncertainties can result from people having differing values, world views, attitudes or emotions, which may then influence individuals’ choices or support for policies. For example, people who share a common goal and are presented with identical information may still make different choices. Ecological uncertainties also may remain due to unexplained variation in the natural world, which we’re not yet able to perfectly understand with available technologies and resources.

In the context of conservation and wildlife management, the potential for uncertainty to influence decisions is perhaps most obvious when we think about predicting how actions (or non-actions) will have lasting impacts into the future. Our abilities to precisely predict future conditions and determine the exact consequences of our actions are, and will remain, limited. Numerous climatic and ecological changes persist on the horizon, and their eventual consequences are not completely understood. Even so, these changes are expected to impact important natural resources and the people that depend on them. In turn, planners and resource managers are expected to incorporate expected changes into their forecasts. Although uncertainty about the future can make hard choices even more challenging, it does not necessarily need to be a roadblock for the advancement of science and policy.

In a fact sheet developed last year, USGS Georgia Unit scientist Dr. Brian Irwin and his collaborators laid out four principles for helping support conservation decision making in the face of uncertainty:

  1. Structure the decision. Formalizing the decision-making process can help navigate the challenges posed by socio-ecological uncertainties. Several key steps are suggested that include: specifying objectives, identifying options, making predictions about likely consequences, assessing trade-offs, and evaluating uncertainties.
  2. Recognize how values motivate. Even if perfect knowledge were obtainable, decision making would still be driven by value-based objectives. Reconciliation of values and knowledge is required to solve decision problems.
  3. Heed evidence. Once a relevant uncertainty is identified for a needed decision, alternative plausible hypotheses should be defined and tested so that the empirical support for competing hypotheses can be established. As new evidence is acquired, incorporating what has been learned should lead to more informed and more justifiable future decisions.
  4. Recognize how risk tolerances may vary. Even when objectives are shared, individuals can still react differently to uncertainty. Accounting for uncertainty within a decision making framework helps make possible risks more transparent and helps define paths towards progressively well-informed future choices.

This project brought together scientists, decision makers, planners, and resource managers across universities and federal and state agencies for a workshop on the topic of “Communicating and Using Uncertain Information in Conservation Decision Making.” This workshop, along with the products developed for the project, advance a decision-analytic perspective within the conservation community to support effective conservation in the face of uncertainty.

The Georgia Unit and Southeast CSC are also collaborating on two other projects led by Dr. Clint Moore to provide science that will inform conservation planning for several species native to the Southeast. One project aims to develop a decision support system for the selection of conservation actions that will lead to a viable landscape supporting the gopher tortoise population. Gopher tortoises are a keystone species with declining populations throughout their southeastern U.S. range. This work will incorporate elements of the structured decision making process around predictive models of habitat suitability and population connectivity to guide the assembly of conservation reserves that promote persistence of the tortoise within Georgia. Another recently initiated project will build on the gopher tortoise research as well as species data contributed by other partners to identify habitat requirements for the gopher tortoise and four other priority at-risk species – Florida pine snake, gopher frog, southern hognose snake, and striped newt – for the ultimate aim of identifying conservation actions expected to improve the status of these species.

The ONB features articles from Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units across the country. Working with key cooperators, including WMI, Units are leading exciting, new fish and wildlife research projects that we believe our readers will appreciate reading about. This article was prepared by the USGS Georgia Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit and the Southeast Climate Science Center. This project was funded by the Southeast Climate Science Center, one of eight regional centers that aim to provide natural and cultural resource managers with science and tools related to the impacts of climate change on fish and wildlife.

Photo Credit
Alan Cressler, USGS
April 14, 2017