What is a sensitive species? A dictionary definition of sensitive is “quick to detect or respond to slight changes, signals, or influences.” According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of tolerant/tolerance is “the ability to accept, endure, experience, or survive something harmful or unpleasant”. So what makes a species or group of species such as amphibians, which are now currently considered “sensitive”, actually sensitive? Amphibians are listed as sensitive in many documents, for example, the US Forest Service defines sensitive species as “species that need special management to maintain and improve their status on National Forests and Grasslands, and prevent a need to list them under the Endangered Species Act (ESA)”. But the question should be, what are these organisms “sensitive” to? Amphibians have been around a long time (hundreds of millions of years!) and are surprisingly tolerant and resilient; some species of amphibians can freeze solid!
To really get a sense of this, let’s talk about extremes. Amphibians were of particular interest to early physiologists because of their unusual respiratory and metabolic adaptations. This led to some rather remarkable experiments. For example to determine if respiration could occur via the skin, physiologist W. F. Edwards removed lungs from frogs and found they could survive in cold water saturated with air for over a month (Edwards 1824). In another experiment a geologist (William Buckland) encased toads in sandstone and limestone chambers and buried them for a year to see how long they would survive*. Those in the more porous limestone survived the first year; the others did not (Buckland 1832). Other experiments involved coating frogs in paint or oil to see how it affected respiration (Edwards 1824, Wells 2007). We now have a better understanding of many amphibian adaptations, including their very low metabolism, and the ability to respire and hydrate through their skin, which makes them both resilient and sensitive (according to the dictionary definition) in a wide range of environments.
Macabre examples aside, the point is amphibians possess amazing adaptations that make them quite hardy organisms. We tend to think of them as “sensitive” without understanding they represent 360 million years of successful adaptation. Diversifying around the Devonian extinction event, amphibians successfully weathered the next three major global extinction events (ending the Permian, Triassic and Cretaceous). They are finely tuned to the ecosystems in which they persist, often with amazing resilience to very dynamic environments; from deserts to tropical rainforests to artic conditions where they can freeze solid (I am certainly sensitive to freezing solid). This close link means amphibians are both sensitive and tolerant to changes in their environment (according to the dictionary definition).
I spent last week at a workshop on translational ecology with Mark and an impressive group of ecologists, climate scientists, and land managers. At the risk of being incomplete (or potentially introducing a new term for an older idea), I am not going to define that term, but I do want to think a bit more about what seems to be an increasing (or renewed) focus on the role of science in informing policy (which for me usually means natural resource management or conservation, but I’m guessing this discussion extends beyond those realms). Thankfully we (at least some of us) have moved beyond the notion that science does not have a role in determining policy, but I still consistently struggle to determine how to make that actually happen. There has been quite a bit of discussion on the role of science communication and co-production in increasing the impact of science on policy. I agree, for the most part, that these things are necessary for elevating the role of science in the decisions we make. I also do not think they are sufficient. I write this blog trying to make some sense of a series of half-thoughts that have been swirling since last week’s working group.
I think it is relatively safe to say that as a group we (conservation scientists) are generally poor communicators. We get hung up on uncertainty and complexity and often neglect the simple rules of story-telling. The Twitter-verse is full of resources for people looking to improve their ability to tell compelling stories about their science and connect their work to the public or decision makers acting on behalf of the public. This connection is crucial, but for a story to have an impact it needs a good listener. Improved science communication can help here too by helping improve science literacy in the public and among decision-makers, but that is likely (at least as I’m arguing here) not entirely sufficient.
This brings me to the next advancement in our approach to ecology: knowledge co-production. Despite being a somewhat unwieldy term, it essentially describes a fairly obvious idea: that science produced with decision-makers actively involved in developing the questions (and even the methods) improves the likelihood that the results will be integrated into the decision-process (and by extension, improve the actual outcome of the decision process). My experience with these kinds of things is limited, but it seems a few ingredients are necessary for this to truly provide a path towards science-impacted policy. First, there must actually be a decision-process that serves to set expectations for what information is necessary, when it is needed, and what ecologists can provide. Second, there must actually be a need for ecological information – this is critical and often overlooked (or at least under-appreciated).
Beware: Informal Blog Post Ahead.
Thank you, John Oliver, for making the world aware of the salmon cannon. If you have not yet become enlightened about this fascinating and hilarious means for transporting fish, stop reading. Click on the above link… Are you done? Great. Now we can all agree it is comical, but it also is a creative solution to the wide-spread problem of dams preventing access to historic salmon spawning habitat, including California’s Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. Whether or not a salmon cannon will be installed at Shasta Dam, it’s mere existence lets me highlight ambitious plans to save this fantastic fish. If you’re not familiar with the saga of the winter-run Chinook, check out my previous post, and if you’re on a role, look at Casey’s great discussion of how deep history shapes the world we see around us today. But if you don’t feel the need to read another post, take my word for it that these fish are a fine specimen of evolutionary adaptation and yet are holding on to existence by a pinky-fin in the face of the numerous changes humans have made in the world.
I most of my first year walking back and forth in marshes attempting to stay upright and complete the days’ work without mud over-topping my waders. It was an awesome year and it is the year that began my love affair with marshes. I suppose it is natural to become enamored with and perhaps a bit biased in favor of the system that you work in, but in my case I am pretty sure it is justified and correct to say, marshes are the coolest! To be specific my infatuation is with coastal marshes and my direct experiences are limited to marshes on the Pacific Coast (but I am sure marshes on the East Coast are pretty rad too). One of the most intriguing thing about marshes is that they are the interface between two worlds.
Marshes are often at the interface of the urban and natural worlds. When we think of marshes, especially in California, I think that the first image that pops into people’s minds is the small forgotten bits of marsh that you often see from the highway. However, there are larger marshes in California, and many of them are smashed up against urban, often economically disadvantaged areas. For example next time you are driving around East Palo Alto, try checking out Laumeister marsh. Palo Alto may have Stanford University but the marshes of East Palo Alto (Palo Alto's often forgotten neighbor) are home to two federally endangered species and a plethora of wildlife. At sunset I would choose a view of Laumeister marsh teaming with shorebirds and shore crabs over the Stanford quad any day! Check out the photos below as examples of how beautiful marshes are.
Pull weeds or spray; Restore wetlands or adapt, Invest in stakeholder engagement or regulatory policy change,... The practice of conservation requires decision making. As humans, we recognize that any decision, even something as simple as where to go to lunch, gets more difficult when the number of people goes up, goals become more divergent, or the cost of making a bad choice goes up. Conservation is replete with complex decisions fraught with uncertainty of outcomes and divergent stakeholder values. Support for making decisions in order to explain decisions to stakeholders is now recognized as essential to conservation practice.
A conservative estimate suggests that over 10,000 conservation projects are currently using some form of formal decision support to drive decisions on what actions to take on behalf of conservation. To spray or pull weeds, put in nest boxes or restore stream banks, develop citizen science / interpretative materials or
fund science: deciding how to invest limited resources to best achieve competing conservation objectives can be very daunting. The challenge is made doubly daunting when
Decision support frameworks are viewed by agencies and NGO’s as essential because of a need for stakeholder accountability and the desire to demonstrate that actions are resulting in favorable conservation outcomes. Decision support falls in the realm of planning, with the result of planning as a conservation profession. The need for stakeholder accountability driver is both broad and deep. The US Federal government requires accountability on everything from meeting travel expenditures to long-range forest plans. NGO’s are experiencing increased accountability from foundations as well as individual donors. Charity Navigator now exists as an organization to help you as a donor hold your organizations accountable for their expenditures.
Accountability begets decision documentation: what decision was made, what information was used to make that decision; what process was followed to make the decision, did stakeholders have a voice in the decision and how did they react to the decision? Much of this, for the US is codified through the NEPA1 decision process. Passed in 1970, the age of NEPA suggests that accountability is not all that new.
What is new, however, is that the well-established fields of decision science and project management are making their way into conservation planning as frameworks for addressing these accountability concerns. Conservation practitioners are increasingly using terms such as “theory of change”, “outcome evaluation”, and “participatory decision making” in their work.
The emergence of multiple decision support frameworks for conservation can be boggling to practitioners trying to practice, and scientists trying to conduct science that informs actual practices (connect knowledge to implementation). Structured Decision Making, Systematic Conservation Planning, the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Evidence Based Conservation, Conservation Evidence, Management Strategy Evaluation, the list is mind boggling and keeps getting longer each year (Climate smart conservation, Strategic foresight, Conservation business planning,..). As the application of these tools has grown during the 21st century, so have the communities of people who practice them, the organizations that endorse them, and the venues through which to learn them. But where do you start?
Sticking a toe in the water to try and learn decision support frameworks is justifiably daunting. Is one better, or more versatile than another? As a scientist who invested in both WordPerfect and Quattro Pro as software packages, I am personally wary of making a choice that I will back out of down the road. I want certainty that I am choosing for the long run. But, will that happen with conservation decision support? Is there likely to be a best choice? Are decision frameworks even here to stay?
There are a variety of reasons why I think that decision support for accountability is here to stay and that it is generating better conservation actions on the ground. However, there are also grounds to think that tracks will not converge and that conservation will simply grow a larger and more confusing toolbox as time moves forward.
Frankly, I think that a big, possibly confusing, toolkit is the best solution: a diversity of tools for conservation decision support. Just as you can cut wood with numerous tools (hand saw, circular saw, table saw, mitre saw,...), I think that conservation practitioners should begin to get comfortable with a very diverse toolkit to support decisions. And just like cutting wood, many tools may work perfectly respectably in many cases, even though there are clearly cases where getting the tool choice exactly right can make all the difference in particular situations.
By: Michael Peterson
California was once home to the American Lion, short-faced bear, and dire wolf. Yet these large, exciting predators are now extinct. So, how do we know they ever existed? The hard structure of their bones and the right conditions produced petrified impressions of past animals known as fossils, which are found in the rock where they were preserved. Even more valuable are natural asphalt seeps, such as the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, which served as a bizarre trap for large animals and an ideal preservation environment. The abundance of fossils in this one spot, including over four hundred dire wolf skulls, has provided researchers with a treasure chest of evidence to reconstruct a past era of animal diversity.
Vertebrates, including birds and mammals, have large bones that increase the chances that they may be preserved, making it possible for us to find and describe the history of these creatures. But how do we know about the rest of the earth’s species? The little ones, the squishy ones, the ones that live in water and get washed away? How do we know what invertebrates, the spineless ones, once existed?
Many times, our best clues of extinct invertebrate biodiversity are provided by the investigations and notes left behind by earlier scientists. A variety of century-old biological surveys exist, as do species descriptions and fishing records. For more recent time periods, photos of wildlife or landscapes may exist. These records provide clues that enable a historical approach to ecology and how the richness of species may be changing over time.
I was confused about the term natural history for a long time. What exactly is historical about natural history? It always seemed more like natural current events to me. My concept of natural history centered mostly on identifying and describing species and their behaviors. Eventually my view grew to include geology, climate, and astronomy, but it was still all just a careful description of the world we experience.
But how did this world come to be? That is the simple question that unlocked the full, grand scope of natural history for me. The world is the product of the past, and that past has been at times very different from the world we know today. I began to understand that the reality we experience is due to the accumulated changes that have happened over billions of years. The story of that past is etched into the world. The past is layered in the rocks. Every landscape is a library, and every organism is a living artifact.
…I’m just not sure we’re focused on the right sources of uncertainty. I spent the beginning of this week at the Southwest Climate Summit in Sacramento. The conversation among the scientists, natural resource managers, and bureaucrats inevitably turned towards uncertainty. I say inevitably because in my work with the Southwest Climate Science Center I often hear that climate models are “just too uncertain to be useful”. This seems reasonable. After all, there are at least 30 different models that describe our best estimate of how future climate will look (or feel)*. If one of these models was “right”, wouldn’t we simply get rid of the other models? Some of the models predict a warmer, wetter future – others predict a warmer, drier future. How do we know which model to believe? These are challenging questions to answer (especially for someone who is not a climate modeler), so I’m not going to try. I’m also not going to try because I don’t think these questions are the real roadblock to our collective ability to begin taking actions to plan for a warmer future**. I say this because making decisions under uncertainty is normal and because we are actually not that uncertain about how warm the future will be.
Just as a deck of cards has four different kings, the state of California has four different types of King Salmon. Each run is creatively named for the season when the adults return to the rivers – we have fall, late-fall, winter, and spring runs. King salmon, also known as Chinook salmon, are the topic of recent news in major California newspapers and science publications alike. One type of Chinook salmon, the winter-run Chinook, is only found in Northern California and is now staring extinction in the face. So I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to introduce you to this fascinating critter, and try to explain why this fish, which requires cold water during California’s hot summer, exists here in the first place.
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