Category Archives: Conservation Biology

Three Approaches to Ecology

I ask the question here why ecology is not appreciated as a science at a time when it is critical to the survival of the existing world. So the first question we need to answer is if this premise is correct. I offer only one example. A university zoology department has recently produced a discussion paper on its plans for faculty recruitment over the next 15 years. This document does not include the word “ecology” in any of its forward planning. Now it is probably not unusual for biology or zoology departments in major universities to downplay ecology when there is so much excitement in molecular biology, but it is an indicator that ecology is not a good place to put your money and reputation as you await a Nobel Prize. So if we can accept the initial premise that ecology is not appreciated, we might ask why this situation exists, a point raised long ago by O’Connor (2000). Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

There are three broad approaches to the science of ecology – theoretical ecology, empirical ecology, and applied ecology. These three areas of ecology rarely talk to each other, although one might hope that they could in future evolve into a seamless thread of science.

Theoretical ecology deals with the mathematical world that has too often only a tangential concern with ecological problems. It has its own journals and a whole set of elegant discussions that have few connections to the real world. It is most useful for exploring what might be if we make certain mathematical assumptions. It is without question the most prestigious part of the broad science of ecology, partly because it involves elegant mathematics and partly because it does not get involved in all the complexities of real-world ecological systems. It is the physics of ecology. As such it carries on in its own world and tends to be ignored by most of those working in the other two broad areas of ecology.

Empirical ecology has set itself the task of understanding how the natural world works at the level of individuals, populations, communities and ecosystems. In its pure form it does not care about solving practical ecological or environmental problems, but its practitioners assume probably correctly that the information they provide will in fact be useful now or in the future. It seeks generality but rarely finds it because all individuals and species differ in how they play the ecological game of survival. If it has a mantra, it is “the devil is in the details”. The problem is the details of empirical ecology are boring to politicians, business people, and to much of the television generation now operating with a 7 second or 140 character limit on concentration.

Applied ecology is where the action is now, and if you wish to be relevant and topical you should be an applied ecologist, whether a conservation biologist, a forester, or an agricultural scientist. The mantra of applied ecologists is to do no harm to the environment while solving real world problems. Applied ecologists are forced to put the human imprint into empirical ecology, so they are very much concerned with declining populations and extinctions of plants and animals. The main but not the sole impact of humans is on climate change, so much of applied ecology traces back to the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, all added to by the increasing human population with its rising expectations. But applied ecologists are always behind the environmental problems of the day because the issues multiply faster than possible solutions can be evaluated. This ought to make for high employment for applied ecologists but in fact the opposite seems to be happening because governments too often avoid long-term problems beyond their 4-year mandate. If you do not agree, think climate change.

So, the consequence is that we have three independent worlds out there. Applied ecologists are too busy to apply the successful paradigms of empirical ecology to their problems because they are under strict time limits by their line managers who need to suggest immediate action on problems. They must therefore fire off solutions like golf balls in all directions, hoping that some might actually help solve problems. Empirical ecologists may not be helpful for applied ecologists if they are overwhelmed by the details of their particular system of study and are constrained by the ‘publish or perish’ mentality of the granting agencies.

Finally, we lay on top all this a lack of funding in the environmental sciences for investigating and solving both immediate and long-term ecological problems. And I am back to my favourite quote in the ecological literature:

“Humans, including ecologists, have a peculiar fascination with attempting to correct one ecological mistake with another, rather than removing the source of the problem.” (Schindler 1997).

What can we do about this? Three things. Pressure our politicians to increase funding on long-term environmental problems. This will provide the person-power to find and test solutions to our known problems. Vote with your ballot and your feet to improve sustainability. And whether you are young or old strive to do no harm to the Earth. And if all this is too difficult, take some practical advice not to buy a house in Miami Beach, or any house near the beach. Do something for the environment every day.


O’Connor, R.J. (2000) Why ecology lags behind biology. The Scientist 14(20):35. (October 16, 2000).

Schindler, D.W. (1997) Liming to restore acidified lakes and streams: a typical approach to restoring damaged ecosystems? Restoration Ecology 5:1-6


On Evolution and Ecology and Climate Change

If ecology can team up with evolution to become a predictive science, we can all profit greatly since it will make us more like physics and the hard sciences. It is highly desirable to have a grand vision of accomplishing this, but there could be a few roadblocks on the way. A recent paper by Bay et al. (2018) illustrates some of the difficulties we face.

The yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) has a broad breeding range across the United States and Canada, and could therefore be a good species to survey because it inhabits widely different climatic zones. Bay et al. (2018) identified genomic variation associated with climate across the breeding range of this migratory songbird, and concluded that populations requiring the greatest shifts in allele frequencies to keep pace with future climate change have experienced the largest population declines, suggesting that failure to adapt may have already negatively affected population abundance. This study by Bay et al. (2018) sampled 229 yellow warblers from 21 locations across North America, with an average of 10 birds per sample area (range n = 6 to 21). They examined 104,711 single-nucleotide polymorphisms. They correlated genetic structure to 19 climate variables and 3 vegetation indices, a measure of surface moisture, and average elevation. This is an important study claiming to support an important conclusion, and consequently it is also important to break it down into the three major assumptions on which it rests.

First, this study is a space for time analysis, a subject of much discussion already in plant ecology (e.g. Pickett 1989, Blois et al. 2013). It is an untested assumption that you can substitute space for time in analyzing for future evolutionary changes.

Second, the conclusions of the Bay et al. paper rest on an assumption that you have adequate data on the genetics involved in change and on the demography of the species. A clear understanding of the ecology of the species and what limits its distribution and abundance would seem to be prerequisites for understanding the mechanisms of how evolutionary changes might occur.

The third assumption is that, if there is a correlation between the genetic measures and the climate or vegetation indices, one can identify the precise ‘genomic vulnerability’ of the local population. Genomic variation was most closely related to precipitation variables at each site. The geographic area with one of the highest scores in genomic vulnerability was in the desert area of the intermountain west (USA). As far as I can determine from their Figure 1, there was only one sampling site in this whole area of the intermountain west. Finally Bay et al. (2018) compared the genomic vulnerability data to the population changes reported for each site. Population changes for each sampled site were obtained from the North American Breeding Bird Survey data from 1996 to 2012.

The genetic data and its analysis are more impressive, and since I am not a genetics expert I will simply give it a A grade for genetics. It is the ecology that worries me. I doubt that the North American Breeding Bird Survey is a very precise measure of population changes in any particular area. But following the Bay et al. paper, assume that it is a good measure of changing abundance for the yellow warbler. From the Bay et al. paper abstract we see this prediction:

“Populations requiring the greatest shifts in allele frequencies to keep pace with future climate change have experienced the largest population declines, suggesting that failure to adapt may have already negatively affected populations.”

The prediction is illustrated in Figure 1 below from the Bay et al. paper.

Figure 1. From Bay et al. (2018) Figure 2C. (Red dot explained below).

Consider a single case, the Great Basin, area S09 of the Sauer et al. (2017) breeding bird surveys. From the map in Bay et al. (2018) Figure 2 we get the prediction of a very high genomic vulnerability (above 0.06, approximate red dot in Figure 1 above) for the Great Basin, and thus a strongly declining population trend. But if we go to the Sauer et al. (2017) database, we get this result for the Great Basin (Figure 2 here), a completely stable yellow warbler population for the last 45 years.

Figure 2. Data for the Great Basin populations of the Yellow Warbler from the North American Breeding Bird Survey, 1967 to 2015 (area S09). (From Sauer et al. 2017)

One clue to this discrepancy is shown in Figure 1 above where R2 = 0.10, which is to say the predictability of this genomic model is near zero.

So where does this leave us? We have what appears to be an A grade genetic analysis coupled with a D- grade ecological model in which explanations are not based on any mechanism of population dynamics, so that the model presented is useless for any predictions that can be tested in the next 10-20 years. I am far from convinced that this is a useful exercise. It would be a good paper for a graduate seminar discussion. Marvelous genetics, very poor ecology.

And as a footnote I note that mammalian ecologists have already taken a different but more insightful approach to this whole problem of climate-driven adaptation (Boutin and Lane 2014).

Bay, R.A., Harrigan, R.J., Underwood, V.L., Gibbs, H.L., Smith, T.B., and Ruegg, K. 2018. Genomic signals of selection predict climate-driven population declines in a migratory bird. Science 359(6371): 83-86. doi: 10.1126/science.aan4380.

Blois, J.L., Williams, J.W., Fitzpatrick, M.C., Jackson, S.T., and Ferrier, S. 2013. Space can substitute for time in predicting climate-change effects on biodiversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(23): 9374-9379. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1220228110.

Boutin, S., and Lane, J.E. 2014. Climate change and mammals: evolutionary versus plastic responses. Evolutionary Applications 7(1): 29-41. doi: 10.1111/eva.12121.

Pickett, S.T.A. 1989. Space-for-Time substitution as an alternative to long-term studies. In Long-Term Studies in Ecology: Approaches and Alternatives. Edited by G.E. Likens. Springer New York, New York, NY. pp. 110-135.

Sauer, J.R., Niven, D.K., Hines, J.E., D. J. Ziolkowski, J., Pardieck, K.L., and Fallon, J.E. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.

On Caribou and Hypothesis Testing

Mountain caribou populations in western Canada have been declining for the past 10-20 years and concern has mounted to the point where extinction of many populations could be imminent, and the Canadian federal government is asking why this has occurred. This conservation issue has supported a host of field studies to determine what the threatening processes are and what we can do about them. A recent excellent summary of experimental studies in British Columbia (Serrouya et al. 2017) has stimulated me to examine this caribou crisis as an illustration of the art of hypothesis testing in field ecology. We teach all our students to specify hypotheses and alternative hypotheses as the first step to solving problems in population ecology, so here is a good example to start with.

From the abstract of this paper, here is a statement of the problem and the major hypothesis:

“The expansion of moose into southern British Columbia caused the decline and extirpation of woodland caribou due to their shared predators, a process commonly referred to as apparent competition. Using an adaptive management experiment, we tested the hypothesis that reducing moose to historic levels would reduce apparent competition and therefore recover caribou populations. “

So the first observation we might make is that much is left out of this approach to the problem. Populations can decline because of habitat loss, food shortage, excessive hunting, predation, parasitism, disease, severe weather, or inbreeding depression. In this case much background research has narrowed the field to focus on predation as a major limitation, so we can begin our search by focusing on the predation factor (review in Boutin and Merrill 2016). In particular Serrouya et al. (2017) focused their studies on the nexus of moose, wolves, and caribou and the supposition that wolves feed preferentially on moose and only secondarily on caribou, so that if moose numbers are lower, wolf numbers will be lower and incidental kills of caribou will be reduced. So they proposed two very specific hypotheses – that wolves are limited by moose abundance, and that caribou are limited by wolf predation. The experiment proposed and carried out was relatively simple in concept: kill moose by allowing more hunting in certain areas and measure the changes in wolf numbers and caribou numbers.

The experimental area contained 3 small herds of caribou (50 to 150) and the unmanipulated area contained 2 herds (20 and 120 animals) when the study began in 2003. The extended hunting worked well, and moose in the experimental area were reduced from about 1600 animals down to about 500 over the period from 2003 to 2014. Wolf numbers in the experimental area declined by about half over the experimental period because of dispersal out of the area and some starvation within the area. So the two necessary conditions of the experiment were satisfied – moose numbers declined by about two-thirds from additional hunting and wolf numbers declined by about half on the experimental area. But the caribou population on the experimental area showed mixed results with one population showing a slight increase in numbers but the other two showing a slight loss. On the unmanipulated area both caribou populations showed a continuing slow decline. On the positive side the survival rate of adult caribou was higher on the experimental area, suggesting that the treatment hypothesis was correct.

From the viewpoint of caribou conservation, the experiment failed to change the caribou population from continuous slow declines to the rapid increase needed to recover these populations to their former greater abundance. At best it could be argued that this particular experiment slowed the rate of caribou decline. Why might this be? We can make a list of possibilities:

  1. Moose numbers on the experimental area were not reduced enough (to 300 instead of to 500 achieved). Lower moose would have meant much lower wolf numbers.
  2. Small caribou populations are nearly impossible to recover because of chance events that affect small numbers. A few wolves or bears or cougars could be making all the difference to populations numbering 10-20 individuals.
  3. The experimental area and the unmanipulated area were not assigned treatments at random. This would mean to a pure statistician that you cannot make statistical comparisons between these two areas.
  4. The general hypothesis being tested is wrong, and predation by wolves is not the major limiting factor to mountain caribou populations. Many factors are involved in caribou declines and we cannot determine what they are because they change for area to area, year to year.
  5. It is impossible to do these landscape experiments because for large landscapes it is impossible to find 2 or more areas that can be considered replicates.
  6. The experimental manipulation was not carried out long enough. Ten years of manipulation is not long for caribou who have a generation time of 15-25 years.

Let us evaluate these 6 points.

#1 is fair enough, hard to achieve a population of moose this low but possible in a second experiment.

#2 is a worry because it is difficult to deal experimentally with small populations, but we have to take the populations as a given at the time we do a manipulation.

#3 is true if you are a purist but is silly in the real world where treatments can never be assigned at random in landscape experiments.

#4 is a concern and it would be nice to include bears and other predators in the studies but there is a limit to people and money. Almost all previous studies in mountain caribou declines have pointed the finger at wolves so it is only reasonable to start with this idea. The multiple factor idea is hopeless to investigate or indeed even to study without infinite time and resources.

#5 is like #3 and it is an impossible constraint on field studies. It is a common statistical fallacy to assume that replicates must be identical in every conceivable way. If this were true, no one could do any science, lab or field.

#6 is correct but was impossible in this case because the management agencies forced this study to end in 2014 so that they could conduct another different experiment. There is always a problem deciding how long a study is sufficient, and the universal problem is that the scientists or (more likely) the money and the landscape managers run out of energy if the time exceeds about 10 years or more. The result is that one must qualify the conclusions to state that this is what happened in the 10 years available for study.

This study involved a heroic amount of field work over 10 years, and is a landmark in showing what needs to be done and the scale involved. It is a far cry from sitting at a computer designing the perfect field experiment on a theoretical landscape to actually carrying out the field work to get the data summarized in this paper. The next step is to continue to monitor some of these small caribou populations, the wolves and moose to determine how this food chain continues to adjust to changes in prey levels. The next experiment needed is not yet clear, and the eternal problem is to find the high levels of funding needed to study both predators and prey in any ecosystem in the detail needed to understand why prey numbers change. Perhaps a study of all the major predators – wolves, bears, cougars – in this system should be next. We now have the radio telemetry advances that allow satellite locations, activity levels, timing of mortality, proximity sensors when predators are near their prey, and even video and sound recording so that more details of predation events can be recorded. But all this costs money that is not yet here because governments and people have other priorities and value the natural world rather less than we ecologists would prefer. There is not yet a Nobel Prize for ecological field research, and yet here is a study on an iconic Canadian species that would be high up in the running.

What would I add to this paper? My curiosity would be satisfied by the number of person-years and the budget needed to collect and analyze these results. These statistics should be on every scientific paper. And perhaps a discussion of what to do next. In much of ecology these kinds of discussions are done informally over coffee and students who want to know how science works would benefit from listening to how these informal discussions evolve. Ecology is far from simple. Physics and chemistry are simple, genetics is simple, and ecology is really a difficult science.

Boutin, S. and Merrill, E. 2016. A review of population-based management of Southern Mountain caribou in BC. {Unpublished review available at:

Serrouya, R., McLellan, B.N., van Oort, H., Mowat, G., and Boutin, S. 2017. Experimental moose reduction lowers wolf density and stops decline of endangered caribou. PeerJ  5: e3736. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3736.


On Immigration – An Ecological Perspective

There is a great deal of discussion in the news about immigration into developed countries like Canada, USA, and Europe. The perspective on this important issue in the media is virtually entirely economic and social, occasionally moral, but in my experience almost never ecological. There are two main aspects of immigration that are particularly ecological – defining sustainable populations and protecting ecosystems from biodiversity loss. These ecological concerns ought to be part of the discussion.

Sustainability is one of the sciences current buzz words. As I write this, in the Web of Science Core Collection I can find 9218 scientific papers published already in 2017 that appear under the topic of ‘sustainability’. No one could read all these, and the general problem with buzz words like ‘sustainability’ is that they tend to be used so loosely that they verge on the meaningless. Sustainability is critical in this century, but as scientists we must specify the details of how this or that public policy really does increase some metric of sustainability.

There have been several attempts to define what a sustainable human population might be for any country or the whole Earth (e.g. Ehrlich 1996, Rees and Wackernagel 2013) and many papers on specific aspects of sustainability (e.g. Hilborn et al. 2015, Delonge et al. 2016). The controversy arises in specifying the metric of sustainability. The result is that there is no agreement particularly among economists and politicians about what to target. For the most part we can all agree that exponential population growth cannot continue indefinitely. But when do we quit? In developed countries the birth rate is about at equilibrium, and population growth is achieved in large part by immigration. Long term goals of achieving a defined sustainable population will always be trumped in the short term by changes in the goal posts – long term thinking seems almost impossible in our current political systems. One elephant in the room is that what we might define now as sustainable agriculture or sustainable fisheries will likely not be sustainable as climates change. Optimists predict that technological advances will greatly relieve the current limiting factors so all will be well as populations increase. It would seem to be conservative to slow our population growth, and thus wait to see if this optimism is justified (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013).

Few developed countries seem to have set a sustainable population limit. It is nearly impossible to even suggest doing this, so this ecological topic disappears in the media. One possible way around this is to divert the discussion to protecting ecosystems from biodiversity loss. This approach to the overall problem might be an easier topic to sell to the public and to politicians because it avoids the direct message about population growth. But too often we run into a brick wall of economics even when we try this approach to sustainability because we need jobs for a growing population and the holy grail of continued economic growth is a firm government policy almost everywhere (Cafaro 2014, Martin et al. 2016). At present this biodiversity approach seems to be the best chance of convincing the general public and politicians that action is needed on conservation issues in the broad sense. And by doing this we can hopefully obtain action on the population issue that is blocked so often by political and religious groups.

A more purely scientific issue is the question why the concept of a sustainable population is thought to be off limits for a symposium at a scientific meeting? In recent years attempts to organize symposia on sustainable population concepts at scientific conferences have been denied by the organizers because the topic is not considered a scientific issue. Many ecologists would deny this because without a sustainable population, however that is defined, we may well face social collapse (Ehrlich and Ehrlich 2013).

What can we do as ecologists? I think shying away from these population issues is impossible because we need to have a good grounding in population arithmetic to understand the consequences of short-term policies. It is not the ecologist’s job to determine public policy but it is our job to question much of the pseudo-scientific nonsense that gets repeated in the media every day. At least we should get the arithmetic right.

Cafaro, P. (2014) How Many Is Too Many? The Progressive Argument for Reducing Immigration into the United States. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN: 9780226190655

DeLonge, M.S., Miles, A. & Carlisle, L. (2016) Investing in the transition to sustainable agriculture. Environmental Science & Policy, 55, 266-273. doi: 10.1016/j.envsci.2015.09.013

Ehrlich, A.H. (1996) Towards a sustainable global population. Building Sustainable Societies (ed. D.C. Pirages), pp. 151-165. M. E. Sharpe, London. ISBN: 1-56324-738-0, 978-1-56324-738-5

Ehrlich, P.R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2013) Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 280, 20122845. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2012.2845

Hilborn, R., Fulton, E.A., Green, B.S., Hartmann, K. & Tracey, S.R. (2015) When is a fishery sustainable? Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 72, 1433-1441. doi: 10.1139/cjfas-2015-0062

Hurlbert, S.H. (2013) Critical need for modification of U.S. population policy. Conservation Biology, 27, 887-889. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12091

Martin, J.-L., Maris, V. & Simberloff, D.S. (2016) The need to respect nature and its limits challenges society and conservation science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113, 6105-6112. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525003113

Rees W.E. &, Wackernagel, M. (2013). The shoe fits, but the footprint is larger than Earth. PLOS Biology 11, e1001701. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001701

On Defining a Statistical Population

The more I do “field ecology” the more I wonder about our standard statistical advice to young ecologists to “random sample your statistical population”. Go to the literature and look for papers on “random environmental fluctuations”, or “non-random processes”, or “random mating” and you will be overwhelmed with references and biology’s preoccupation with randomness. Perhaps we should start with the opposite paradigm, that nothing in the biological world is random in space or time, and then the corollary that if your data show a random pattern or random mating or whatever random, it means you have not done enough research and your inferences are weak.

Since virtually all modern statistical inference rests on a foundation of random sampling, every statistician will be outraged by any concerns that random sampling is possible only in situations that are scientifically uninteresting. It is nearly impossible to find an ecological paper about anything in the real world that even mentions what their statistical “population” is, what they are trying to draw inferences about. And there is a very good reason for this – it is quite impossible to define any statistical population except for those of trivial interest. Suppose we wish to measure the heights of the male 12-year-olds that go to school in Minneapolis in 2017. You can certainly do this, and select a random sample, as all statisticians would recommend. And if you continued to do this for 50 years, you would have a lot of data but no understanding of any growth changes in 12-year-old male humans because the children of 2067 in Minneapolis would be different in many ways from those of today. And so, it is like the daily report of the stock market, lots of numbers with no understanding of processes.

Despite all these ‘philosophical’ issues, ecologists carry on and try to get around this by sampling a small area that is considered homogeneous (to the human eye at least) and then arm waving that their conclusions will apply across the world for similar small areas of some ill-defined habitat (Krebs 2010). Climate change may of course disrupt our conclusions, but perhaps this is all we can do.

Alternatively, we can retreat to the minimalist position and argue that we are drawing no general conclusions but only describing the state of this small piece of real estate in 2017. But alas this is not what science is supposed to be about. We are supposed to reach general conclusions and even general laws with some predictive power. Should biologists just give up pretending they are scientists? That would not be good for our image, but on the other hand to say that the laws of ecology have changed because the climate is changing is not comforting to our political masters. Imagine the outcry if the laws of physics changed over time, so that for example in 25years it might be that CO2 is not a greenhouse gas. Impossible.

These considerations should make ecologists and other biologists very humble, but in fact this cannot be because the media would not approve and money for research would never flow into biology. Humility is a lost virtue in many western cultures, and particularly in ecology we leap from bandwagon to bandwagon to avoid the judgement that our research is limited in application to undefined statistical populations.

One solution to the dilemma of the impossibility of random sampling is just to ignore this requirement, and this approach seems to be the most common solution implicit in ecology papers. Rabe et al. (2002) surveyed the methods used by management agencies to survey population of large mammals and found that even when it was possible to use randomized counts on survey areas, most states used non-random sampling which leads to possible bias in estimates even in aerial surveys. They pointed out that ground surveys of big game were even more likely to provide data based on non-random sampling simply because most of the survey area is very difficult to access on foot. The general problem is that inference is limited in all these wildlife surveys and we do not know the ‘population’ to which the numbers derived are applicable.

In an interesting paper that could apply directly to ecology papers, Williamson (2003) analyzed research papers in a nursing journal to ask if random sampling was utilized in contrast to convenience sampling. He found that only 32% of the 89 studies he reviewed used random sampling. I suspect that this kind of result would apply to much of medical research now, and it might be useful to repeat his kind of analysis with a current ecology journal. He did not consider the even more difficult issue of exactly what statistical population is specified in particular medical studies.

I would recommend that you should put a red flag up when you read “random” in an ecology paper and try to determine how exactly the term is used. But carry on with your research because:

Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.

Charles Babbage (1792–1871

Krebs CJ (2010). Case studies and ecological understanding. Chapter 13 in: Billick I, Price MV, eds. The Ecology of Place: Contributions of Place-Based Research to Ecological Understanding. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 283-302. ISBN: 9780226050430

Rabe, M. J., Rosenstock, S. S. & deVos, J. C. (2002) Review of big-game survey methods used by wildlife agencies of the western United States. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 30, 46-52.

Williamson, G. R. (2003) Misrepresenting random sampling? A systematic review of research papers in the Journal of Advanced Nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 44, 278-288. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2648.2003.02803.x


On Wildlife Management

There are two global views about wildlife management that are echoed in conservation biology. The first view is that we manage wildlife for the sake of wildlife so that future generations have the ability to see what we see when we go out into the woods and fields. The second view is that we manage wildlife and indeed all of nature for humans to exploit. The second view was elegantly summarized many years ago by White (1967):

Our science and technology have grown out of Christian attitudes toward man’s relation to nature which are almost universally held not only by Christians and neo-Christians but also by those who fondly regard themselves as post-Christians. Despite Copernicus, all the cosmos rotates around our little globe. Despite Darwin, we are not, in our hearts, part of the natural process. We are superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim. The newly elected Governor of California, like myself a churchman but less troubled than I, spoke for the Christian tradition when he said (as is alleged), “when you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.” (p.1206)

The first view of wildlife is now for ecologists the dominant conservation ethic of our time, the recognition that wildlife and nature in general has intrinsic value (Vucetich et al. 2015). Yet when there are conflicts in environmental management, the second view that humans trump all comes to the fore. Think of examples in your region. When caribou and moose are declining, the shout goes up to shoot the wolves. The golden example of this is perhaps Norway where wolves are nearly all gone and moose are superabundant and fed in winter so that there are plenty for hunters to shoot in the following year. Where domestic and feral cats threaten bird populations, the view typically expressed is that cats are our pets and quite cute, and certainly cannot be regulated or controlled as feral pests.

One of the main defenses of biodiversity conservation during the last 20 years has been the role of ecosystem services. The utilitarian view that ecosystems do things for humans that you can then calculate in dollars has been used to carry conservation forward for those who subscribe to the second global view of nature as something that exists only for our exploitation. Two recent reviews are critical of this approach. Silvertown (2015) argues that the ecosystem services paradigm has been oversold and suggests alternatives. An important critical overview of the conundrum of biodiversity research is presented very clearly in Vellend (2017) and is essential reading for all those interested in environmental management issues and the collision of science and human values expressed in our two global views of biodiversity conservation.

Wildlife managers must operate with the first view in mind to manage wildlife for wildlife but at the same time must act in ways determined by their political masters to adopt the second view of human values over wildlife. Ecologists walk a thin line in this dilemma. A good example is the book by Woinarski et al. (2007) which details the disastrous state of environmental management in northern Australia. There are courageous attempts to resolve these management problems and to bridge the two global views by bringing ecological knowledge into policy development and environmental management (e.g. Morton et al. 2009, Lindenmayer et al. 2015). Many others beginning with Aldo Leopold in North America and many others in Europe have made elegant pleas for the first global view of wildlife conservation. The attempts now to bridge this gap between exploitation and preservation are to bring social sciences into environmental research programs, and these efforts can be increasingly effective. But there is a large contingent of the public that support the second view that humans are the most important species on earth. The increasing collision of rising human populations, resource shortages, and climate change produce a perfect storm of events that place wildlife management and environmental sustainability in a difficult position. Everyone who is able must speak up for the first global view in order to achieve a sustainable society on earth and for wildlife and biodiversity in general to be protected for future generations.

Lindenmayer, D.B.,et al. 2015. Contemplating the future: Acting now on long-term monitoring to answer 2050’s questions. Austral Ecology 40(3): 213-224. doi: 10.1111/aec.12207.

Morton, S.R., et al. 2009. The big ecological questions inhibiting effective environmental management in Australia. Austral Ecology 34(1): 1-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1442-9993.2008.01938.x.

Silvertown, J. 2015. Have Ecosystem Services been oversold? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 30(11): 641-648. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2015.08.007.

Vellend, M. 2017. The biodiversity conservation paradox. American Scientist 105(2): 94-101.

Vucetich, J.A., Bruskotter, J.T., and Nelson, M.P. 2015. Evaluating whether nature’s intrinsic value is an axiom of or anathema to conservation. Conservation Biology 29(2): 321-332. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12464.

White, L., Jr. 1967. The historical roots of our ecologic crisis. Science 155(3767): 1203-1207.

Woinarski, J., Mackey, B., Nix, H., and Traill, B. 2007. The Nature of Northern Australia: Natural values, ecological processes and future prospects. Australian National University E Press, Canberra. (available at:

On Biodiversity and Ecosystem Function

I begin with a quote from Seddon et al. (2016):

By 2012, the consensus view based on 20 years of research was that (i) experimental reduction in species richness, at any trophic level, negatively impacts both the magnitude and stability of ecosystem functioning [12,52], and (ii) the impact of biodiversity loss on ecosystem functioning is comparable in magnitude to other major drivers of global change [13,54].”

The references are to Cardinale et al. (2012), Naeem et al. (2012), Hooper et al. (2012), and Tilman et al. (2012).

The basic conclusion of the literature cited here is that with very extensive biodiversity loss, ecosystem function such as primary productivity will be reduced. I first of all wonder which set of ecologists would doubt this. Secondly, I would like to see these papers analysed for problems of data analysis and interpretation. A good project for a graduate class in experimental design and analysis. Many of the studies I suspect are so artificial in design as to be useless for telling us what will really happen as natural biodiversity is lost. At best perhaps we can view them as political ecology to try to convince politicians and the public to do something about the true drivers of the mess, climate change and overpopulation.

Too many of the graphs I see in published papers on biodiversity and ecosystem function look like this (from Maestre et al. (2012): data from 224 global dryland plots)

There is a trend in these data but zero predictability. And even if you feel that showing trends are good enough in ecology, the trend is very weak.

Many of these analyses utilize meta-analysis. I am a critic of the philosophy of meta-analysis and not alone in wondering how useful many of these are in guiding ecological research (Vetter et al. 2013, Koricheva, and Gurevitch 2014). Perhaps the strongest division in deciding the utility of these meta-analyses is whether one is interested in general trends across ecosystems or predictability which depends largely on understanding the mechanisms behind particular trends.

Another interesting aspect of many of these analyses lies in the preoccupation with stability as a critical ecosystem function maintained by species richness. In contrast to this belief, Jacquet et al. (2016) have argued that in empirical food webs there is no simple relationship between species richness and stability, contrary to conventional theory.

Finally, another quotation from Naeem et al. (2012) which raises a critical issue on which ecologists need to focus more:

“In much of experimental ecological research, nature is seen as the complex, species-rich reference against which treatment effects are measured. In contrast, biodiversity and ecosystem functioning experiments often simply compare replicate ecosystems that differ in biodiversity, without any replicate serving as a reference to nature. Consequently, it has often been difficult to evaluate the external validity of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning research, or how its findings map onto the “real” worlds of conservation and decision making. Put another way, what light can be shed on the stewardship of nature by microbial microcosms that have no analogs in nature, or by experimental grassland studies in which some plots have, by design, no grass species? “ (page 1403)

And for those of you who are animal ecologists, the vast bulk of these studies were done on plants with none of the vertebrate browsers and grazers present. Perhaps some problems here.

Whatever one’s view of these research paradigms, no questions will be answered if we lose too much biodiversity.

Cardinale, B.J., Duffy, J.E., Gonzalez, A., Hooper, D.U., Perrings, C., Venail, P., Narwani, A., Mace, G.M., Tilman, D., Wardle, D.A., Kinzig, A.P., Daily, G.C., Loreau, M., Grace, J.B., Larigauderie, A., Srivastava, D.S. & Naeem, S. (2012) Biodiversity loss and its impact on humanity. Nature, 486, 59-67. doi: 10.1038/nature11148

Hooper, D.U., Adair, E.C., Cardinale, B.J., Byrnes, J.E.K., Hungate, B.A., Matulich, K.L., Gonzalez, A., Duffy, J.E., Gamfeldt, L. & O/’Connor, M.I. (2012) A global synthesis reveals biodiversity loss as a major driver of ecosystem change. Nature, 486, 105-108. doi: 10.1038/nature11118

Jacquet, C., Moritz, C., Morissette, L., Legagneux, P., Massol, F., Archambault, P. & Gravel, D. (2016) No complexity–stability relationship in empirical ecosystems. Nature Communications, 7, 12573. doi: 10.1038/ncomms12573

Koricheva, J. & Gurevitch, J. (2014) Uses and misuses of meta-analysis in plant ecology. Journal of Ecology, 102, 828-844. doi: 10.1111/1365-2745.12224

Maestre, F.T. et al. (2012) Plant species richness and ecosystem multifunctionality in global drylands. Science, 335, 214-218. doi: 10.1126/science.1215442

Naeem, S., Duffy, J.E. & Zavaleta, E. (2012) The functions of biological diversity in an Age of Extinction. Science, 336, 1401.

Seddon, N., Mace, G.M., Naeem, S., Tobias, J.A., Pigot, A.L., Cavanagh, R., Mouillot, D., Vause, J. & Walpole, M. (2016) Biodiversity in the Anthropocene: prospects and policy. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 283, 20162094. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2016.2094

Tilman, D., Reich, P.B. & Isbell, F. (2012) Biodiversity impacts ecosystem productivity as much as resources, disturbance, or herbivory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 10394-10397. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1208240109

Vetter, D., Rücker, G. & Storch, I. (2013) Meta-analysis: A need for well-defined usage in ecology and conservation biology. Ecosphere, 4, art74. doi: 10.1890/ES13-00062.1

On Conservation

The question of how ecology can guide decisions about conservation actions is a vexed one of which much has already been written with respect to conservation triage (Bottrill et al. 2009, Gerber 2016). The global question – what should we do now? – produces two extreme answers: (1) do nothing. The biodiversity on earth has gone through many climatic fluctuations imposed by geology and planetary physics and these forces are out of our hands. Or (2) we must protect all species because we do not know if they are important for ecosystem function. The government recognizes that (2) is impossible, and either reflects back to answer (1) or politely asks scientists to suggest what is possible to achieve with limited funding. John Wiens (2016) in an interesting discussion in the British Ecological Society Bulletin (December 2016, pp 38-39) suggests that two possible solutions to this conundrum are to get more funding for conservation to reduce this clear financial limitation, or secondly to move from the conservation of individual species to that of ecosystems. The problem he and many others recognize is that the public at large fall in love with individual species much more readily than with ecosystems. It is the same problem medical science often faces with contributions from wealthy people – attack individual diseases with my funding, not public health in general.

Ecologists face this dilemma with respect to their research agenda and research grants in general – what exactly can you achieve in 3-5 years with a small amount of money? If your research is species-specific, something useful can often be studied particularly if the threatening processes are partly understood and you adopt an experimental approach. If your research is ecosystem oriented and your funds are limited you must generally go to the computer and satellite ecology to make any short term research possible. This problem of larger scale = larger costs can be alleviated if you work in a group of scientists all addressing the same ecosystem issue. This still requires large scale funding which is not as easily obtained as ecologists might like. The government by contrast wishes more and more to see results even after only a few years, and asks whether you have answered your original question. The result is a patchwork of ecological data which too often makes no one happy.

If you want a concrete example, consider the woodland caribou of western Canada (Schneider et al. 2010). For these caribou Hebblewhite (2017) has clearly outlined a case in which the outcomes of any particular action are difficult to predict with the certainty that governments and business would be happy with. Many small herds are decreasing in size, and one path is to triage them, leaving many small herds to go extinct and trying to focus financial resources to save larger herds in larger blocks of habitat for future generations. The problem is the oil and gas industry in western Canada, and hence the battle between resources that are worth billions of dollars and a few caribou. Wolf control can serve as a short term solution, but it is expensive and temporary. Governments like action even if it is of no use in the long term; it makes good media coverage. None of these kinds of conservation decisions are scientific in nature, and must be policy decisions by governments. It flips us back into the continuum between options (1) and (2) in the opening paragraph above. And for governments policy decisions are more about jobs and money than about conservation.

The list of threatened and endangered species that make our newspapers are a tiny fraction of the diversity of species in any ecosystem. There is no question but that many of these charismatic species are declining in numbers, but the two larger questions are: will this particular species go extinct? And if this happens will this make any difference to ecosystem function? There is scarcely a single species of all that are listed as threatened and endangered for which ecologists have a good answer to either of these questions. So the fallback position to option (1) is that we have a moral obligation to protect all species. But this fallback position leads us even further out of science.

In the end we must ask as scientists what we can do with the understanding we have, and what more needs to be done to improve this understanding. Behind all this scientific research looms the elephant of climate change which we either ignore or build untestable computer models to make ‘predictions’ which may or may not occur, if only because of the time scales involved.

None of these problems prevents us from taking actions on conservation on the ground (Wiens 2016a). We know that, if we take away all the habitat, species abundances will decline and some will go extinct. Protecting habitat is the best course of action now because it needs little research to guide action. There is much to know yet about the scale of habitats that need preservation, and about how the present scale of climate change is affecting protected areas now. Short term research can be most useful for these issues. Long-term research needs to follow.

Bottrill, M.C., et al. (2009) Finite conservation funds mean triage is unavoidable. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24, 183-184. doi: 10.1016/j.tree.2008.11.007

Gerber, L.R. (2016) Conservation triage or injurious neglect in endangered species recovery. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, 113, 3563-3566. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1525085113

Hebblewhite, M. (2017) Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil and gas industry. Biological Conservation, 206, 102-111. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.12.014

Schneider, R.R., Hauer, G., Adamowicz, W.L. & Boutin, S. (2010) Triage for conserving populations of threatened species: The case of woodland caribou in Alberta. Biological Conservation, 143, 1603-1611. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.04.002

Wiens, J.A. (2016) Is conservation a zero-sum game? British Ecological Society Bulletin 47(4): 38-39.

Wiens, J.A. (2016a) Ecological Challenges and Conservation Conundrums: Essays and Reflections for a Changing World. John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey. 344 pp. ISBN: 9781118895108

Predator Free New Zealand

The New Zealand Government announced in July 2016 the adoption of Predator Free New Zealand 2050, a program for the control and eradication of introduced pests. It is setting up a new public-private partnership company by the beginning of 2017 to help fund regional large-scale predator eradication programs with the anticipated funding ratio of 1 government dollar to 2 private dollars. This is a bold new program grounded in the fundamental research of an excellent array of conservation biologists that have carried out the field research underpinning what needs to be done to protect native biodiversity in New Zealand.

Because of its isolation and the complete absence of endemic terrestrial vertebrate predators, New Zealand has become a basket case for the conservation of native species after the introduction of four species of rodents – Norway rat, black rat, house mouse, and Pacific rat (kiore) – as well as the possum (introduced for fur), the stoat (to “control rodents”) and the hedgehog (Goldson et al. 2015). The initial focus in this program will be on rats, stoats, and possums. Rat control on islands has already been a major success story for New Zealand scientists (Russell et al. 2016).

Four short-term goals have been set for 2025 for the Predator Free New Zealand project:

  • An additional 1 million hectares of land where pests have been supressed or removed through Predator Free New Zealand partnerships
  • Development of a scientific breakthrough capable of removing at least one small mammal predator from New Zealand entirely
  • Demonstration areas of more than 20,000 hectares that are predator free without the use of fences
  • Complete removal of all introduced predators from offshore island nature reserves

This is a striking vision, and it puts New Zealand at the forefront of global conservation efforts and goals. Everyone appreciates that it will not be easy. In particular there has to be careful attention to the order in which pests are removed. Competition between invasive species as well as predation among them often has counterintuitive results. In New Zealand when rats were removed from experimental plots, house mice increased, and when possums were removed rats increased (Ruscoe et al. 2011). When stoats (Mustela erminea) were removed, there was no effect on rat or mouse abundance, contrary to what a model predicted (Tompkins and Veltman 2006). At the moment there is no clear way to do a total removal of these pest mammals all at once rather than sequentially.

One of the major stimuli for this program has been stopping bovine TB transmission from possums to cattle. The brushtail possum (introduced from Australia) is a disease reservoir and vector of bovine tuberculosis to cattle. Extensive control programs for possums are applied over about 10 million ha in New Zealand by the spreading of 1080 poison baits and trapping, and this program has reduced possum populations to low numbers but not eliminated this pest (Byrom et al. 2016). Poisoning for possum control also reduces stoats and rats, and so has secondary benefits for native biodiversity. A total of approximately NZ$55 million is spent each year on this control program, and if possums could be eradicated, the financial benefits would be great for the cattle industry. Byrom et al. (2016) showed that possum reduction by poisoning had benefits not only for TB transmission but also for increases in vegetation (reduced herbivory), invertebrate, frog and bird abundance.

Two worries are that the social license to continue widespread use of deadly poisons will erode in the future and secondly that the pest species will eventually evolve resistance to the poisons. For these reasons much research is needed on more clever ways of achieving pest reduction and elimination.

The success of island eradications in the past 20 years has emboldened ecologists to wish for successes on larger and larger scales. But eradication is a complex problem and there is a long history of success and failures, particularly in insect populations (Myers et al. 2000). But by reaching out with a direct challenge to applied ecologists, molecular biologists, chemists, and other clever scientists, New Zealand has moved the standard forward in ways that bode well for understanding more why ecology matters.

And then it is on to the feral cats.

Byrom, A.E., Innes, J. & Binny, R.N. (2016) A review of biodiversity outcomes from possum-focused pest control in New Zealand. Wildlife Research, 43, 228-253. doi: 10.1071/WR15132

Campbell, K.J., et al. (2015) The next generation of rodent eradications: Innovative technologies and tools to improve species specificity and increase their feasibility on islands. Biological Conservation, 185, 47-58. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2014.10.016

Goldson, S.L., et al. (2015) New Zealand pest management: current and future challenges. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 45, 31-58. doi: 10.1080/03036758.2014.1000343

Myers, J.H., Simberloff, D., Kuris, A.M. & Carey, J.R. (2000) Eradication revisited: dealing with exotic species. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 15, 316-320.

Ruscoe, W.A. et al. (2011) Unexpected consequences of control: competitive vs. predator release in a four-species assemblage of invasive mammals. Ecology Letters, 14, 1035-1042. doi: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2011.01673.x

Russell, J.C. & Broome, K.G. (2016) Fifty years of rodent eradications in New Zealand: another decade of advances. New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 40, 197-204. doi: 10.20417/nzjecol.40.22.

Tompkins, D.M. & Veltman, C.J. (2006) Unexpected consequences of vertebrate pest control: predictions from a four-species community model. Ecological Applications, 16, 1050-1061. doi: 10.1890/1051-0761(2006)016[1050:UCOVPC]2.0.CO;2


University Conundrums

Universities in Canada and the United States and probably in Australia as well are bedeviled by not knowing what they should be doing. In general, they all want to be ‘excellent’ but this is largely an advertising gimmick unless one wishes to be more specific about excellent in what? Excellent in French literature? Probably not. Excellent in the engineering that facilitates the military-industrial complex? Probably yes, but with little thought of the consequences for universities or for Planet Earth (Smart 2016). Excellence in medicine? Certainly, yes. But much of the advertisement about excellence is self aggrandisement, and one can only hope that underneath the adverts there is some good planning and thinking of what a university should be (Lanahan et al. 2016).

There are serious problems in the world today and the question is what should the universities be doing about these long-term, difficult problems. There are two polar views on this question. At one extreme, universities can say it is our mandate to educate students and not our mandate to solve environmental or social problems. At the other extreme, universities can devote their resources to solving problems, and thereby educate students in problem analysis and problem solving. But these universities will not be very popular since for any serious issue like climate change, many voters are at odds over what can and should be done, Governments do not like universities that produce scholarship that challenges their policies. So we must always remember the golden rule – “she that has the gold, makes the rules”.

But there are constraints no matter what policies a university adopts, and there is an extensive literature on these constraints. I want to focus on one overarching constraint for biodiversity research in universities – graduate students have a very short time to complete their degrees. Given a 2-year or 3-year time horizon, the students must focus on a short-term issue with a very narrow focus. This is good for the students and cannot be changed. But it is potentially lethal for ecological studies that are long-term and do not fit into the demands of thesis writing. A basic assumption I make is that the most important ecological issues of our day are long-term problems, at least in the 20-year time frame and more likely in the 50 to 100-year time frame. The solution most prevalent in the ecology literature now is to use short term data to produce a model to extrapolate short term data into the indefinite future by use of a climate model or any other model that will allow extrapolation. The result of this conundrum is that the literature is full of studies making claims about ecological processes that are based on completely inadequate time frames (Morrison 2012). If this is correct, at least we ought to have the humility to point out the potential errors of extrapolation into the future. We make a joke about this situation in our comical advice to graduate students: “If you get an exciting result from your thesis research in year 1, stop and do no more work and write your thesis lest you get a different result if you continue in year 2.”

The best solution for graduate students is to work within a long-term project, so that your 2-3 years of work can build on past progress. But long-term projects are difficult to carry forward in universities now because research money is in short supply (Rivero and Villasante 2016). University faculty can piggy-back on to government studies that are well funded and long-term, but again this is not always possible. Conservation ecology is not often well funded by governments either, so we keep passing the buck. Collaboration here between governments and universities is essential, but is not always strong at the level of individual projects. Some long-term ecological studies are led by federal and regional government research departments directly, but more seem to be led by university faculty. And the limiting resource is typically money. There are a set of long-term problems in ecology that are ignored by governments for ideological reasons. Some politicians work hard to avoid the many ecological problems that are ‘hot potatoes’ and are best left unstudied. Any competent ecologist can list for you 5 or more long-term issues in conservation biology that are not being addressed now for lack of money. I doubt that ideas are the limiting resource in ecology, as compared with funding.

And this leads us back in a circle to the universities quest for ‘excellence’. Much here depends on the wisdom of the university’s leaders and the controls on university funding provided by governments for research. In Canada for example, funding constraints for research excellence exist based on university size (Murray et al. 2016). How then can we link the universities’ quest for excellence to the provision of adequate funding for long-term ecological issues? As one recommendation to the directors of funding programs within the universities, I suggest listing the major problems of your area and of the world at large, and then fund the research within your jurisdiction by how well the proposed research matches the major problems we face today.

Lanahan, L., Graddy-Reed, A. & Feldman, M.P. (2016) The Domino Effects of Federal Research Funding. PLoS ONE, 11, e0157325. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157325

Morrison, M.L. (2012) The habitat sampling and analysis paradigm has limited value in animal conservation: A prequel. Journal of Wildlife Management, 76, 438-450. doi: 10.1002/jwmg.333

Murray, D.L., Morris, D., Lavoie, C., Leavitt, P.R. & MacIsaac, H. (2016) Bias in research grant evaluation has dire consequences for small universities. PLoS ONE, 11, e0155876.doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0155876

Rivero, S. & Villasante, S. (2016) What are the research priorities for marine ecosystem services? Marine policy, 66, 104-113. doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2016.01.020

Smart, B. (2016) Military-industrial complexities, university research and neoliberal economy. Journal of Sociology, 52, 455-481. doi: 10.1177/1440783316654258