Evaluation and Monitoring of Conservation

DU's programs have always had a strong biological foundation

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Photo © Paul Weldon

By Scott Stephens

Ducks Unlimited's conservation programs have always had a strong biological foundation. Soon after being founded, the organization was responsible for initiating some of the first surveys of breeding areas across the prairies of the U.S. and Canada to help identify the most critical waterfowl breeding habitat on the continent.

Since then, that tradition has continued, with DU funding hundreds of studies and conducting research of its own to address important information needs. However, the models for how this critical information is obtained are changing in important ways.

Although a great deal of work has been done and many important questions answered, there is still much to learn about how ducks respond to landscape, habitat, and environmental changes.

This is not surprising, considering how complex and dynamic the ecosystems are that waterfowl depend on through their annual cycle. Prairie breeding areas represent a prime example. Consider how diverse wetland conditions are in the prairie region, cycling from years of extreme wet to severe drought. Layer on top of that the changing land-use activities-resulting from changes in farm programs and commodity prices, fluctuating populations of small mammals like voles and mice, and varying levels of diseases such as rabies and mange-that cause fluctuations in predator numbers. Quickly, you have a very complex system that varies both from year to year as well as from site to site.

Ultimately, conservation actions that are effective in one area may not be successful in another area even a short distance away, and activities that result in the desired outcome in one year may not be successful in the next. Additionally, most land management actions are underpinned by fundamental assumptions that must hold true or else the whole activity can crumble like the infamous house of cards. Key uncertainties about aspects of the action may also need to be reduced so as to achieve the desired results more frequently.

Given this situation, management actions are most appropriately evaluated across a continuum of the time they achieve the desired results, rather than in black-and-white terms of effective or ineffective. So, the million-dollar question (both figuratively and literally) is how to achieve the desired results a high percentage of the time with conservation programs amid all the variation and complexity.

Recently, new models have been developed for how natural resource management activities are evaluated and improved. One of the most prominent of these is referred to as Adaptive Resource Management or ARM. ARM can be simply described as repeated loops of doing, monitoring, evaluating, revamping, and doing again. This concept is at the heart of Adaptive Harvest Management used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to refine and improve our understanding of how harvest regulations affect duck populations.

Ducks Unlimited has embraced an approach of constant monitoring and evaluation that allows for continual refinement of its habitat programs. Fundamental assumptions of habitat programs are tested for their validity, key uncertainties are reduced, and changes in conservation programs are made accordingly-all as a result of continued monitoring and evaluations. In the end, such an approach ensures that each and every DU dollar invested in conservation programs is used as effectively and efficiently as possible.