DoD Biodiversity Conservation Handbook
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Chapter 2: Understanding Conservation Science; By  Bob Unnasch

Monitoring Biodiversity

What is monitoring? The Latin root of the word monitoring means "to warn," and an essential purpose of monitoring is to raise a warning flag that the current course of action is not working. Monitoring is a powerful tool for identifying problems in the early stages, before they become dramatically obvious or critical. If identified early, problems can be addressed while cost-effective solutions are still available. For example, an invasive species that threatens a rare plant population on an installation is much easier to control at the initial stages of invasion, compared to eradicating it once it is well established. Monitoring is also critical for measuring management success. Good monitoring can demonstrate that the current management approach is working and provide evidence supporting the continuation of current management.

In order for monitoring to function as a warning system or a measure of success, we must understand what monitoring is and the close relationship between monitoring and improved natural resources management decision-making. In this guide, we define monitoring as the collection and analysis of repeated observations, or measurements, to evaluate changes in condition and progress toward meeting a management objective.

Monitoring is the glue that binds the adaptive management cycle. The monitoring provides the information to assess success and guide future actions. To be successful, any monitoring project must reflect two key concepts. The first is that monitoring is driven by objectives. What is measured, how well it is measured, and how often it is measured are design features that are defined by how an objective is articulated. The objective describes the desired condition. Management is designed to meet the objective. Monitoring is designed to determine if the objective is met. Objectives form the foundation of the entire monitoring project. The second concept is that monitoring is only initiated if opportunities for management change exist. If no alternative management options are available, expending resources to measure a trend in a species population is futile. What can you do if a population is declining other than document its demise? Because monitoring resources are limited, they should be directed toward species for which management solutions are available.

When does monitoring succeed? Unfortunately, most monitoring projects are initiated seemingly in a vacuum, and thus are destined to fail. The reasons for this lack of success can easily be traced to one of several causes:

Six Components of a Good Monitoring Plan
  1. Who: What is the biological or ecological aspect of interest?
  2. What: What is the indicator that you will be measuring?
  3. Where: What is your area of interest?
  4. When: What time of year do you need to make your observations?
  5. How much: How much change is important? What is the minimum difference you want to detect?
  6. For how long? What is the interval during which you want to detect this change?

CONFUSING MONITORING WITH INVENTORY. Inventory can be described as a point-intime measurement of the resource to determine location or condition and number. The types of information collected during an inventory can be identical to those collected during monitoring. A key difference is that inventory data are rarely related to a management goal or objective. Collecting this type of data is often justified as providing a "baseline" for later comparison to allow for change detection. However, the question "Are things different now than they were X years ago?" is facetious. Of course things are different! The more appropriate questions are "How different are they?" and "What is the cause of these changes?"

CONFUSING MONITORING WITH RESEARCH. A second common failing of monitoring efforts is equating monitoring with research. The goals of a research study are different from those of a monitoring project. Typically, monitoring addresses one of two questions: (1) Has the variable of interest changed by some defined magnitude (e.g. 20 percent decline over 5 years), or, (2) Has that variable crossed some defined threshold (e.g. federal water quality standard)? Research usually tries to understand the causes of change – if such change occurs. These are more complicated questions, requiring greater sophistication in design, and thus larger expense. Too often, research, couched in terms of monitoring, repeatedly answers the same question because it is thought that monitoring needs to be focused on long-term data collection. Thus, its value decreases over time, as its relevance to current needs disappears.

For example, a common question when initiating a prescribed burning project is "What is the impact of prescribed fire on the rare plant species x?" This is a research question, and the parameters of interest might be survivorship, changes in reproduction, changes in vigor, and the like. In order to know that any differences detected pre- and post-burning are a result of the treatment, and not due to weather, a rigorous experiment needs to be implemented and data need to be collected in unburned (control) plots in addition to those plots in the burned area. The results of this experiment may, after five years of data collection, show that species x responds well to fire, with the survivorship and vigor of individuals being higher in the burned area than in the controls, and the reproduction rate is dramatically higher as well. The clear conclusion is that fire management is beneficial to species x. The logical result would be to declare the research successful, and reallocation of efforts to different, or new, problems. Unfortunately, it is too often argued that even though we now know how the species responds to fire, data collection cannot be stopped because the original study was called a "monitoring" study and monitoring is a long-term effort. Similarly, these sorts of research studies are repeated, over and over, at many places because the original experimental design was couched as a monitoring study that becomes ossified as the accepted method. Thus, the experiment is repeated ad infinitum, and we rediscover that species x responds well to fire over and over again.

Red Footed Booby

Red Footed Booby

The highly successful nesting of the red-footed booby on the artillery and small arms range of Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i demonstrates that military operations and biodiversity conservation need not be mutually exclusive. (Photo: Douglas Ripley)

DEPENDENCE ON "STANDARD METHODS." A common failing of monitoring programs is to blindly follow some standard sampling protocol. Most often, such standard protocols have been developed with the goal of providing a common dataset across many sites. Because there is typically no common question among these installations, the protocol designers try to design sampling to capture the maximum amount of data possible, in hope that when a question arises, there will be data available. Experience has shown that this hope is rarely, if ever, fulfilled. When a question does arise, invariably it turns out that the data were collected in the wrong places, the wrong variable was measured, or the sampling protocol provided such low statistical power as to be worthless.

The keys to designing a monitoring program that is efficient, effective, and empowers adaptive management are simple: First, you need to know what you need to know. What is the question that needs to be answered? If there is no clearly defined question, the likelihood that the data collected will provide value is nil. Some questions are easily articulated: Is the number of breeding pairs of x above our stated threshold? Has the spatial extent of prairie declined by more than 5 percent over the past decade? Has the habitat suitability index for grassland birds increased by 10 percent, on average, across the installation since 1990?

Monitoring questions about natural communities, or ecosystems, are more difficult to articulate so that they adequately address the conservation need. The common ecosystem descriptors (species composition, physiognomic structure, and function) rarely provide the information needed for management decisions. Documenting that arthropod species richness has declined by a few species, for example, doesn't lead to obvious management actions.

Earlier, key ecological attributes were identified as those characteristics that must be maintained to ensure the integrity or viability of a conservation target. Threats to the targets manifest themselves as stresses on these attributes, and conservation actions should be focused on abating these threats. Effective monitoring should address changes in these threats, and the response in the key attributes.

That is obviously not a simple task and achieving success requires a deep understanding of the ecosystems of concern. As has been pointed out earlier, one way to achieve the necessary contextual understanding to accomplish useful and effective monitoring is through participation in an ecoregional study. In Colorado, Fort Carson's participation in the Central Shortgrass Ecoregional Assessment is an excellent example of where participation in an ecoregional study helped the installation focus its monitoring efforts of natural communities or ecosystems to make useful management decisions. Through that collaborative initiative, Fort Carson obtained ecological analyses, suggestions for priority areas, a monitoring framework, and ideas to help it address conservation management decisions. See See also

Science's curiosity about, study of, and understanding of environmental matters has grown prodigiously in recent years, as has its understanding of human effects on the natural world. We – scientists, policymakers, land managers, ordinary citizens – know better than ever that the actions we do and do not take can and will influence the globe on which we depend for life. This goes for natural resources managers on military installations as well as for homeowners who put chemicals on their lawns or people shopping for a new car.

The natural resources managers have a huge burden of responsibility that was never completely recognized before, but they also have an enormous storehouse of useful knowledge that only recently has been assembled. Science has supplied them with information about ecosystems, species populations, habitat and communities, landscapes, monitoring, fragmentation, and hundreds of other ways to keep track of, and protect, the biodiversity in their care – and to do so while also serving the military mission.

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Bob Unnasch is Senior Conservation Scientist, The Nature Conservancy

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