NCASC Research Identifies Future Research Topics to Improve Land Acquisition Decisions for Migratory Bird Conservation

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New research supported by the National CASC applies the Value of Information framework to U.S. Fish and Wildlife land acquisition decisions to identify areas of future research that can help inform efforts to create and expand protected areas to conserve migratory birds in light of climate change.

Seven birds fly above a river in front of a grassy plain.

Migratory birds, like these common eiders in Alaska, pose additional management challenges because they occupy different habitats during breeding and non-breeding seasons, sometimes separated by vast distances. (Public domain.)

Protected areas are established by government- and non-government organizations to protect biodiversity from habitat degradation,  loss, and the effects of climate change. Land acquisition for these preserves is a complex process, one that relies heavily on estimates of how valuable the area is to species of conservation concern. Yet increasingly, climate change is affecting the long-term stability of many ecosystems, potentially undermining the continued efficacy of protected areas. Land acquisition decisions can be further complicated when prioritized species  have large, complex habitat needs. Migratory birds, for example, rely on habitats separated by long distances during breeding, non-breeding, and migratory seasons.

In a study supported by the National CASC, researchers used the expected value of information (EVoI) framework to identify future research topics that can most improve land acquisition decisions for migratory bird conservation. To do this, they worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) land acquisition program managers to identify hypothesized climate change effects on migratory birds, loosely organized into four categories: distribution, abundance, community response, and migration and phenology (timing). They  used a literature review to rank each hypothesis based on how relevant it is to land acquisition decisions; how much uncertainty it has; and how much that uncertainty could be decreased with further research and monitoring. The researchers adjusted rankings based on USFWS manager input. Finally, they created a composite score to give each hypothesis an overall ranking, thereby creating a  list of recommended research priorities. Hypotheses scoring highly in all three categories ranked highest. Three USFWS programs served as case studies in this effort, although the authors highlight that the process is generalizable to other land acquisition programs.

Hypotheses focusing on the spatial distribution of focal species or habitats were ranked highly in this analysis, as range shifts have the potential to significantly alter which land will meet fundamental objectives in the future and large-scale monitoring efforts and spatial modeling frameworks can improve future range shift estimations. The analysis also recommended prioritizing research on the role of climate change in causing biotic homogenization, as this remains poorly understood but has the potential to do great harm to many of the USFWS’s highest-priority species. Other hypothesis had high relevance scores but would be difficult to research (such as changes in abundance caused by warming temperatures), or could be studied relatively easy but were not relevant to long-term, static land acquisition decisions (such as climate change effects on migration timings). This work may inform future government, academic, and non-governmental research priorities and provides a clear rationale for allocating resources and research effort to these topics.

This publication is the product of the project, “Decision-Support for Migratory Bird Management in the Face of Uncertainty” funded by the National CASC.