Scientist Spotlight: Mitch Eaton, Adaptive Management, and Uncertainty in the Face of Climate Change

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Learn about the work and research of Mitch Eaton, Research Ecologist for the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center.

A slender-snouted crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus)

While surveying for African dwarf crocodiles (Osteolaemus tetraspis) on the Djidji River in Gabon’s Ivindo National Park as part of his Ph.D. research (2007), Eaton pulled this 2.4 m slender-snouted crocodile (Mecistops cataphractus) from a fishing net in which it became entangled while trying to steal a fish.  (credit – Mitch Eaton)

“If you’re always in the same place, how can you truly understand natural variation and the broad diversity of the natural world?” says Mitch Eaton, a Research Ecologist for the Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC). Eaton grew up in the foothills outside of Boulder, Colorado, but he and his family were frequent global travelers. He says this inspired him to look beyond local and regional perspectives when doing research, and to consider broader conservation perspectives.

“I do think a lot of what travel brings to me is a better appreciation of different ways in which people view the world and the environment that we live in,” he says. “I’ve also seen different perspectives affect how people make decisions about their local resources. That piqued my interest in applied science, starting at a young age.”

As an undergraduate student at Colorado College, Eaton traveled to Ecuador for a study abroad program but left the program early to volunteer with a local conservation organization in the Amazon.  There, he also designed an anthropological study which became his honors thesis. This work served as Eaton’s transition into conservation science, recognizing the role of local perspectives in defining conservation values, as well as the realities of conflicts between conservation management and local livelihoods.

Knowing he would pursue a career in the natural sciences, Eaton sought opportunities to join field projects across the United States and internationally. These adventures included working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) studying impacts of oil spills on seabirds in Alaska, working on a glaciology study in Antarctica, and serving as Africa program officer for the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. He eventually began a master’s program in Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota and developed his thesis project studying subsistence harvest of tropical vertebrates in the Republic of the Congo. His study area was a commercial logging concession bordering a national park, with forward logging camps providing subsistence hunters access to primary forest.  Eaton compared harvest metrics from pristine forests to those with longer hunting histories to evaluate harvest impacts and sustainability.

“The outcome of this work may have had important implications for conservation,” says Eaton. “We thought about more creative ways to address sustainable extraction, using this information to aid in developing guidelines to distribute the pressures of harvest across a broader area, which would provide sufficient food resources for local populations while minimizing impacts to one particular area.”

Fascination with the intersection of sustainable use and wildlife ecology eventually led to Eaton’s dissertation work, which he started a few years later in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Approached by a colleague with an opportunity to develop another wildlife project in Africa, Eaton began researching a little-known species of forest crocodile found in Central and West Africa.  This work involved collecting data for modeling population demographics, estimating regional harvest rates of crocodiles, fish, and other wildlife, and conducting genetics analyses on the crocodiles across their range. The research led Eaton and his team to discover two new species of African dwarf crocodiles.

Eaton’s interest in applied conservation and species management led him to begin a postdoctoral position in 2009 with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.  This position involved promoting decision science methods for resource management through a combination of developing new analytical methods, applying these techniques to adaptive management case studies, and teaching decision analysis courses to build the capacity of resource managers and other professionals in the Department of the Interior.

"Decision science and adaptive management are effective for guiding difficult decisions characterized by uncertainty, risk, and complex dynamics, especially those that are made repeatedly,” says Eaton. “Adaptive management considers how present actions may affect the system in the future and formalizes the learning process.”

After spending two years as Assistant Unit Leader with the USGS New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Cornell University, Eaton was offered the position of Research Ecologist with the Southeast CASC. Eaton reflects that his long-standing relationship with the USGS—particularly his role with the CASC network—helped connect his interests in decision science and modeling natural systems with managers planning for climate and environmental changes.

“The signs of climate change have always been there, whether decision makers consider them implicitly or explicitly,” says Eaton. “An adaptive management perspective can help us address these impacts by forcing us to think about how climate trends affect our ability to understand, model, and manage ecosystem processes.”

Eaton says a key aspect of his work for the CASC network, in the context of helping to support decision making, is developing and maintaining manager and stakeholder relationships. He recently completed a project which began as a partnership between the Northeast and Southeast CASCs and a collection of coastal National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs; U.S. Fish and Wildlife).  Focusing on Cape Romain NWR in South Carolina, the first phase of the project explored how structured decision-making techniques could support climate adaptation planning for current and predicted sea-level rise on the Atlantic coast, along with other large-scale drivers like urban growth. The project team developed a framework for helping managers make decisions that efficiently allocate their limited resources while upholding agency values in long-term planning efforts.

“Without first and foremost understanding stakeholder values and translating those values into tangible objectives, we have no real basis for making decisions or identifying the kind of science we need,” says Eaton. “We have to think about who is going to be affected by changes to a resource, and also who has the power to affect change in that resource.”

South Carolina’s threatened maritime forest on the coast of Cape Romain

Remnants of South Carolina’s threatened maritime forest on the coast of Cape Romain Nat’l Wildlife Refuge.  Sea-level rise is impacting these forests and the critical habitat they provide, creating ‘boneyard beaches’.  (credit - Mitch Eaton)

For the second phase of the project, Eaton was a lead principal investigator. CASC researchers and managers from Cape Romain NWR had realized that the scope of the problems facing the refuge—sea-level rise along the coast and urban development inland—was too large for the refuge to address on its own. After hosting a series of meetings with regional stakeholders, the team expanded the project to form a partnership with the coastal refuges, the state of South Carolina, the U.S. Forest Service, and an array of local organizations interested in assisting with climate and land use adaptation planning.

“The Cape Romain NWR really couldn’t achieve their objectives without expanding that decision context to include other decision makers on the landscape, which increases complexity” says Eaton. “By partnering with relevant agencies and interested groups, they could expand the spatial scale of their decision making to better match those processes they believed were impacting their missions.”

Eaton and his colleagues analyzed management alternatives and engaged with stakeholders through several workshops to explore possible regional climate futures, collaborative learning, and the collective strengths and weaknesses of the partnership to produce adaptation strategies. These approaches were aimed at helping partners develop shared goals for the future, identify and weigh potential strategies to address unknown futures, and generate additional approaches for expanding collaboration to consider the broadest set of values and perspectives.

“We really tried to think about the broader landscape and a full community of stakeholders involved in these issues. That meant going beyond those primarily interested in conserving wildlife and habitats to residents concerned with land use, resource extraction, and livelihoods, among other topics,” he says. “We wanted to develop a process that would include a much greater representation of society, which is why we expanded beyond traditional CASC partners—like the National Park Service or USFWS—for this project.”

The result of this research was a decision support framework for identifying multiple stakeholder needs, recognizing where there is overlap, and where management values and objectives either align or conflict with one another. The entire project served as an example of co-production, which Eaton says is vital to CASC engagement with stakeholders. The team also developed predictive models of future sea levels and urban growth, as well as modeling tools to guide spatial planning for land conservation under uncertainty.

“It’s complicated to address a problem when you have multiple values at stake, and it was never going to be easy to account for all stakeholder needs and interests,” he says. “We made sure these efforts were clear to all partners involved. If they wanted to work in this collective way rather than individually, they had to recognize the plurality of interests and figure out a way to deal with that, together.”

According to Eaton, applying principles of decision science was helpful in this project because the framework allowed those involved to focus on individual components instead of trying to tackle the whole problem at once, which can overwhelm decision making. This is particularly useful when a problem includes a high degree of uncertainty and risk, which are ever-present factors when making adaptation decisions under climate change.

“There will always be uncertainty in resource management, but some uncertainties can inhibit decision making more than others,” says Eaton. “Targeting the science to address those sources of uncertainty that are impeding decisions is usually a primary goal of decision-support.”

Eaton recently joined another Southeast CASC-funded project focused on using models of future climate, species adaptive response, and a decision-analytic approach to develop strategies for conserving iconic coqui frogs in Puerto Rico. The island is facing a high level of uncertainty regarding future changes in precipitation and temperature. Resource managers are unsure how local species, such as the coqui, may respond to changes in rainfall, humidity, or land-use, all of which can impact the persistence of sensitive amphibians. Eaton and his colleagues will use climate models, captive experiments, and field observations to predict future ranges of temperature and precipitation to anticipate species’ responses to changing conditions. Results of this project are expected to help develop management strategies for increasing the long-term persistence of threatened and endangered amphibians on the island.

“A systematic approach to decision making will help us better understand and respond to the needs of regional managers, as well as support their ability to act to conserve at-risk species,” he says. “This way, we can determine how different ranges of uncertainty for any given climate variable will impact a manager’s ability and confidence to make decisions. This would save us time and money and get decision makers the information they need to conserve culturally and biologically important resources like the coquis.”

More recently, Eaton has teamed up with Brian Miller, a Research Ecologist with the North Central CASC, to work with the National Park Service on developing management strategies for grazing units at Dinosaur National Monument, as water and vegetation resources respond to scenarios of changing climates. Eaton says this ability to work with the diverse group of scientists comprising the CASC network, as well as a variety of different stakeholders, has largely contributed to his successes and motivation. He looks forward to continuing co-production efforts across regions.

“Being able to collaborate across CASCs that are producing amazing science, get involved with university researchers doing really interesting work, and directly interact and respond to resource managers out in the field are all highlights of my work. I appreciate having such a variety of interests and expertise to draw from,” says Eaton. “That each CASC has the ability to operate regionally, but also function as a national network, means the whole country is our playground, in a sense. It’s really a unique place to work as it gives many of us the opportunities and space to do research at a relevant scale—that makes this job amazing.”

The whistling coqui frog on a leaf

The whistling coqui (E. cochranae), one of 17 iconic Puerto Rican amphibians in the genus Eleutherodactylus, observed in a lowland delta marsh of the Arecibo River on Puerto Rico’s north coast. (credit – Mitch Eaton)

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Mitch Eaton earned his M.S. in Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota in 2002, and his Ph.D. in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado in 2009. An interest in how policy makers actually use science to make decisions led him to a postdoc at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center (USGS), where he worked on decision-analytic tools for addressing resource management issues nationally and globally. Eaton is interested in bridging the science-management gap by working with decision makers early in their formulation of management issues and considering how science can most effectively support decision-making. HIs work at the Southeast CASC, where he was hired in 2011, involves close collaboration with decision makers and stakeholders to identify and implement management goals. 

Check out some of his adventures below!