On Adaptive Management

I was fortunate to be on the sidelines at UBC in the 1970s when Carl Walters, Ray Hilborn, and Buzz Holling developed and refined the ideas of adaptive management. Working mostly in a fisheries context in which management is both possible and essential, they developed a new paradigm of how to proceed in the management of natural resources to reduce or avoid the mistakes of the past (Walters & Hilborn 1978). Somehow it was one of those times in science where everything worked because these three ecologists were a near perfect fit to one another, full of new ideas and inspired guesses about how to put their ideas into action. Many other scientists joined in, and Holling (1978) put this collaboration together in a book that can still be downloaded from the website of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IASA) in Vienna:

Adaptive management became the new paradigm, now taken up with gusto by many natural resources and conservation agencies (Westgate, Likens & Lindenmayer 2013). Adaptive management can be carried out in two different ways. Passive adaptive management involves having a model of the system being managed and manipulating it in a series of ways that improve the model fit over time. Active adaptive management takes several different models and uses different management manipulations to decide which model best describes how the system operates. Both approaches intend to reduce the uncertainty about how the system works so as to define the limits of management options.

The message was (as they argued) nothing more than common sense, to learn by doing. But common sense is uncommonly used, as we see too often even in the 21st century. Adaptive management became very popular in the 1990s, but while many took up the banner of adaptive management, relatively few cases have been successfully completed (Walters 2007; Westgate, Likens & Lindenmayer 2013). There are many different reasons for this (discussed well in these two papers), not the least of which is the communication gap between research scientists and resource managers. Research scientists typically wish to test an ecological hypothesis by a management manipulation, but the resource manager may not be able to use this particular management manipulation in practice because it costs too much. To be useful in the real world any management experiment needs to have careful, long-term monitoring to map its outcome, and management agencies do not often have the opportunity to carry out extensive monitoring. The underlying cause then is mainly financial, and resource agencies rarely have an adequate budget to cover the important wildlife and fisheries issues they are supposed to manage.

If anything, reading this ‘old’ literature should remind ecologists that the problems discussed are inherent in management and will not go away as we move into the era of climate change. Let me stop with a few of the guideposts from Holling’s book:

Treat assessment as an ongoing process…
Remember that uncertainties are inherent…
Involve decision makers early in the analysis…
Establish a degree of belief for each of your alternative models…
Avoid facile and narcotic compression of indicators such as cost/benefit ratios that are generally inappropriate for environmental problems….

And probably remind yourself that there can be wisdom in the elders….

The take-home message for me in re-reading these older papers on adaptive management is that it is similar to the problem we have with models in ecology. We can produce simple models or in this case solutions to management problems on paper, but getting them to work properly in the real world where social viewpoints, political power, and scientific information collide is extremely difficult. This is no reason to stop doing the best science and to try to weld it into management agencies. But it is easier said than done.

Holling, C.S. (1978) Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK.

Walters, C.J. (2007) Is adaptive management helping to solve fisheries problems? Ambio, 36, 304-307.

Walters, C.J. & Hilborn, R. (1978) Ecological optimization and adaptive management. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, 9, 157-188.

Westgate, M.J., Likens, G.E. & Lindenmayer, D.B. (2013) Adaptive management of biological systems: A review. Biological Conservation, 158, 128-139.

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