Putting science into conservation action

A Decision Support Tool helps DU target wetland and grassland conservation efforts to benefit nesting and brood-rearing mottled ducks.

When Ducks Unlimited talks about the science underlying our conservation efforts, that’s frequently all that is said – that it’s there. But that science is not something to be taken for granted, and the effort and time it takes to become useable information for guiding conservation programs should be appreciated. Here is one example of the complex path from question to answers.

The mottled duck (Anas fulvigula) is a year-round resident of coastal marshes and prairies in the Western Gulf of Mexico Coast (WGC). Population surveys indicate the WGC mottled duck population has experienced a long-term, steep decline in Texas, is stable or slightly increasing in Louisiana and is stable to declining across the entire WGC range.

Declining population trends in portions of its range has made the mottled duck a species of concern among state and federal agencies. Because the loss and degradation of nesting and brood-rearing habitats are believed to be largely responsible for historical declines, conservation and management of habitats for mottled ducks is a priority concern for area conservation partners. But do we know where the best habitats for mottled ducks are and where to focus our conservation efforts?

To answer these questions, Ducks Unlimited has collaborated with other Gulf Coast conservation partners, including Texas A&M University – Kingsville, the Gulf Coast Prairie Landscape Conservation Cooperative, and the Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV). Working together, the partnership developed a Decision Support Tool (DST) to help target wetland and grassland conservation efforts to benefit nesting and brood-rearing mottled ducks. 

Decision Support Tools are computer-based or graphical systems that aide stakeholders in making efficient and effective decisions. In wildlife conservation, DSTs are used to consolidate available biological and ecological knowledge within a spatial framework to identify areas on the landscape where conservation actions are expected to have the greatest benefit. 

Three output models, or maps, were developed to identify good existing habitat and areas that could benefit most from habitat restoration and enhancement. Each map identifies areas on the Gulf Coast where specific conservation or management activities would be beneficial and ranks them based on their expected relative benefit, or priority. One map depicts priority areas for grassland establishment (nesting habitat). One map depicts priority areas for wetland enhancement (brood-rearing habitat). These two maps are used to target restoration and enhancement activities. The final map depicts and prioritizes areas that currently provide mottled duck habitat. This map can be used to target acquisitions, easements or maintenance activities to protect and maintain existing habitat.

Project partners tested the accuracy of the maps produced from the DST using seven years of mottled duck breeding population survey data. Preliminary results indicate that mottled ducks consistently choose landscapes identified as higher priority nesting habitat by the DST than landscapes around randomly generated points. This means the models work and provide a biologically based framework to guide habitat conservation for mottled ducks throughout the western Gulf Coast.

Ducks Unlimited uses the DST models to support proposals for public funding. By following the rigorous science of the DST, we can focus our conservation efforts where they matter most to mottled ducks. The ability to support funding proposals with information derived from DST outputs adds credibility to the proposed efforts and assures potential funders that our conservation programs are truly guided by science and planning.

Once the model was validated, conservation partners on the GCJV brought up their desire to link conservation expenditures with the model – to put their money where the science says will provide the most benefit. As part of our agreement with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Ducks Unlimited ensures that at least $100,000 of the funding they provide for the Texas Prairie Wetlands Project goes into habitats identified as high priority by the DST. Much of our conservation work along the Gulf Coast contributes to the habitat and population goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan through the GCJV Chenier Plain Initiative Plan and GCJV Mottled Duck Conservation Plan.

“It’s great to see an effort like this where we all, as a partnership, identified the need, took it to fruition, tested the output and are applying it on the ground. We took it all the way from planning to implementation through adaptive management,” said Cynthia Edwards, Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS) Coordinator and former science coordinator for the Gulf Coast Prairie LCC. “Over time we’ll be able to add more information, like sea level rise, refine the model and improve on application.”

Even conservation partners that don’t focus on mottled ducks have recognized the importance of a broad partnership identifying a science need, putting the science together and putting it into application.