Incorporating “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” into Natural Resource Research, Management, and Conservation

USGS Cooperative Research Unit Corner

Incorporating “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” into Natural Resource Research, Management, and Conservation

Kansas is the home to a diverse aquatic community. However, many fish have been designated as species in need of conservation because of land use change, water alterations, and other human impacts. The Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (Kansas Unit) at Kansas State University is leading research on "big hairy audacious goals" (BHAGs) – tools that create visions of realistic future success that can be incorporated into resource management.

BHAGs are defined as big, bold goals that, if achieved, would completely change all aspects of an activity, outcome, process, and, for which, the pathway to achievement is often inconceivable at the outset. The BHAGs advocated at the Kansas Unit are problem-specific, based on science and data, and are adapted over time to iteratively integrate new data to address persistent problem-specific goals. Using this planning tool, no data set is left behind, and every data collection event adds to what is known, guides next steps, and leads to increasingly informed decisions.

This approach has specific practical applications for natural resource agencies charged with conserving native species. An ongoing challenge for the natural resource profession is that the stewardship mission operates at a decadal time frame and the duration of individual projects is several years. As a result, a perpetual dilemma with which researchers, managers, and administrators grapple is that specific data-driven activities, undertaken as a routine component of professional responsibilities, may be successful within a short time period (e.g., season, year, an individual project), but may result in limited cumulative progress for species, habitat, or ecosystem conservation over a longer time period (e.g., multiple projects, decades). The purpose of this perspective is to show that stepping back and taking a longer-term, bigger-picture, strategic approach can identify a desirable science-based, multi-project vision for specific fish and wildlife problems.

Operationalizing long term visions of conservation success is difficult. Often an outside-the-box visioning perspective is not valued by on-the-ground practitioners. Early career professionals may not appreciate longer term planning because they are necessarily focused on the immediate achievements needed for career success. However, thoughtful administrators who recognize the need for change can be the instigators of the visioning process.

Intergenerational teams within the Cooperative Research Units are perfectly positioned to create think-tanks that link present data collection to future conservation success through partnerships of senior Unit scientists who bring experience and vision, graduate students who bring creativity and energy, and state and federal partners who bring technical expertise.

Diagram showing impact of short term actions on long term success

For all types of planning, linking long-term outcomes to real-time activities is difficult. Any individual short-term action can move us in a specific direction (Fig. 1A). Often, we repeat the same steps over and over (Fig. 1B) or in a progressive fashion (Fig. 1C). However, we cannot always predict where we will end up (Fig. 1D), and unexpected events can derail our progress (Fig. 1E). Creativity can lead to new innovations or lack of coordination (Fig. 1F) that can be positively or negatively influenced by our professional associates (Fig. 1G). As this array of options shows, without long term goals to assess progress, it is impossible to evaluate whether short-term actions accumulate conservation success over a longer time frame.

Specific persistent fisheries and aquatic conservation problems that can benefit from BHAGS include (a) understanding and managing habitat (assessment, modification, restoration), (b) assessing, managing, and conserving fish populations (nuisance taxa, sportfish, threatened taxa), (c) conducting informative evaluations (stocking, harvest within and across systems), (d) mitigating adverse impacts for general environmental protection (e.g. barriers), (e) implementing science-based regional stewardship (parks, refuges, protected areas, reserves, municipalities), (f) identifying and applying interdisciplinary, sustainable solutions (balancing water use and conservation), (g) watershed restoration, and (h) ecosystem-based management.

The first step in the strategic planning process is to identify a long-term, shared vision of the best possible outcome for field data collection over a longer multi-study time frame. As part of the shared vision, researchers must identify what resource managers want to be, what they need to know, constraints that exist, decisions they will face, best possible outcomes, and best possible data collection practices. Step two in the strategic process is to critically assess what we currently know pathways, the third step in the strategic process, connect the current status with a shared, long-term vision. Achieving pathways requires the iterative linking of sampling over multiple, multi-year individual projects through time and space to provide an integrated context for what is known, what is not known, and what we need to know to achieve the shared vision.

The approach described above has specific practical applications for natural resource agencies charged with conserving native species. To meet the needs for new tools for the conservation toolbox as identified in the Kansas State Wildlife Action Plan, a collaboration of Unit scientists, graduate students, and agency partners will provide guidance for native fish restoration through five related directions. These include (1) implementing a strategic planning process, (2) synthesizing existing literature on benchmarks of successful restoration and fish stocking, (3) analyzing monitoring databases related to habitat and native fish distribution, (4) developing/testing field data protocols for habitat assessment, restoration stocking, and evaluation methodologies, and (5) facilitating an ongoing program of adaptive management.

Ultimately, researchers seek to provide long-term guidance on approaches rather than a one-time one-place remedy. Incorporating the ideas promoted here can increase conservation effectiveness related to persistent fisheries and wildlife problems that are regular and high priorities for researchers, managers, and administrators.

The ONB features articles from U.S. Geological Survey 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. Story by Martha Mather, Assistant Unit Leader, Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Kansas State University.

September 15, 2020