Global Change and Conservation Triage on National Wildlife Refuges

Science Center Objects

As custodians of ecological goods and services valued by society, coastal National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) have an especially important role to play in helping socio-ecological systems adapt to global-change processes.

Refuge managers must decide when and where to acquire or protect new land/habitat
Refuge managers must decide when and where to acquire or protect new land/habitat

The Science Issue and Relevance: Coastal ecosystems in the eastern U.S. have been severely altered by processes associated with human development, including drainage of wetlands, changes in hydrology, land clearing, agricultural and forestry activity, and the construction of structures that “harden” the coast. Sea-level rise and the changing frequency of extreme events associated with climate change are now further degrading the capacity of those ecological and social systems to remain resilient. As custodians of ecological goods and services valued by society, coastal National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) have an especially important role to play in helping socio-ecological systems adapt to global-change processes. 

Methods for Addressing the Issue: To help refuges address the challenge of adapting to changing processes, we articulated a two-track decision problem faced by coastal refuge managers. The first track focuses on efficient allocation of limited staff time and budgets for management of existing programs under the current refuge design. The second track recognizes the negative impacts of global-change processes on the ability to maintain societal values derived from the existing refuge configuration. Over the long term, refuge managers must decide when and where to acquire or protect new land/habitat to supplement or replace the existing refuge footprint to sustain values as the system evolves over time. Each track suggests a unique set of alternatives to represent differences in the identity of the decision maker(s) and in the spatial, temporal and governance scales of the decision problem. We developed a prototype decision structure by describing how a hierarchical set of objectives and alternative actions can be used to explore the tradeoffs inherent in making short and long-term adaptation decisions. The prototype attempts to characterize a balance between decisions within the purview of the refuge itself and decisions made at higher organizational levels concerning reconfiguration of the refuge, which may be required to ensure the long-term persistence of societal values.

Future Steps: We have begun a series of meetings with stakeholders to elicit concerns, plausible future scenarios, and the value of ecosystem goods and services. These will be used to assist decision makers adapt to sea level rise both on and off refuge.

Products:

Johnson, F. A., M. J. Eaton, G. McMahon, R. Nilius, M. R. Bryant, D. J. Case, J. Martin, N. J. Wood, and L. Taylor. 2015. Global change and conservation triage on National Wildlife Refuges. Ecology and Society 20(4):14.