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February 1, 2022

Scientists with the USGS and Trout Unlimited (TU) recently hosted an event to facilitate cross-organizational learning and collaborative considerations of important emerging science themes and how these might be applied in TU’s conservation and engagement efforts. 

Building on on-going collaboration and dialogue, USGS aquatic ecologists, biologists, and social scientists presented on various topics of relevance to TU’s conservation efforts including Priority Waters planning, stakeholder and community engagement, and beyond 

“We feel that TU offers unique opportunity to USGS in that TU has a very entwined local community presence and role, both urban and rural, and TU’s ability to implement our shared applied science on the ground is a big deal for us,” said David Hu, USGS Fish and Aquatic Species Program Manager. 

Image: USGS Documents 2015 Western U.S. Drought
A hydrologic technician measures streamflow in Lightning Creek at Clark Fork, ID, as part of a study to document a 2015 drought. USGS scientists will analyze the data to identify which rivers and streams may be most vulnerable to future droughts.

Scientists from across the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area presented on their specific expertise and capacity that could meet TU needs: 

Ben Letcher is a Research Ecologist with the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center. He shared his expertise in climate refuge planning and the need for a more integrative approach, combining information on flows, stream power, connectivity, and adaptive capacity to provide actionable information for identifying refugia. Ben shared a recently developed web site to collect stream images for use in artificial intelligence/machine learning models to estimate stream flow in headwaters in which TU researchers and volunteers can play a key role providing local knowledge, data and ground-truthing model results. 

Jason Dunham, an Aquatic Ecologist at the USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center, focused his presentation on ecological drought – when a deficit in water availability impacts ecosystems and the benefits they provide. Dunham explained that as the climate warms, drought is an increasingly common hazard that influences more people and ecosystems than any other kind of natural hazard (e.g., floods, earthquakes, tornadoes). The conventional single-discipline approach to learn about drought contrasts with how it impacts diverse natural and human systems. USGS Eco-Drought studies seeks to provide a more interdisciplinary approach to bridge these perspectives, and insights from this work have important implications for linking complex hydrologic processes (e.g., temperatures and stream flows) to drought and well-being of valued ecosystem services such as native trout fisheries. 

Abigail (Abby) J. Lynch is a Research Fish Biologist with the USGS National Climate Adaptation Science Center. Abby discussed recent work by the USGS on Managing for RADical Ecosystem Change: Applying the Resist-Accept-Direct (RAD) Framework. Most aquatic conservation and management approaches look to the past for precedent, but with climate change and other stressors, aquatic systems are transforming, making many of these approaches increasingly untenable. The RAD framework can help navigate the unfamiliar territory of ‘what comes next’ while still using some familiar tools and strategies (e.g., adaptive management).  

Tim Cline is an Ecologist with the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center who discussed leveraging ecological complexity to cope with uncertainty in future change. Many current conservation and management approaches follow a predict-and-prescribe approach, which require adequate understanding of all the important habitats and stressors affecting species. However, understanding of complex ecosystems and ecosystem change are limited, rendering long-term predictions of future states highly uncertain. Cline discussed an alternative approach for developing more resilient conservation strategies that focus on managing for heterogeneity/diversity to increase resilience against uncertain future change by providing options for winners to emerge from an increasing set of stressors. 

Researchers set up block nets to perform population estimates
Scientists from the USGS and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation set up block nets to perform population estimates of fish in a pool on Rock Creek, WA. 

Nicholas Cole, a Research Social Scientist at the USGS Fort Collins Science Center, brought a natural resource economic perspective into the discussion. Cole highlighted that social systems within outdoor recreation are complex and incorporate processes across many scales. Participant's preferences and ultimately their behaviors are dependent on unique backgrounds, beliefs, and flows of information, and when investigating preferences among important stakeholder groups, it is important to incorporate assumptions of heterogeneity to avoid unintended pitfalls and identify key management actions. Using the North American Waterfowl Management Plan as an example, Cole discussed choice experiments as one tool available to identify key preferences and unique segments within a complex social system.  

Rounding out the USGS expertise was Aparna Bamzai-Dodson, Deputy Director for the USGS North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center (CASC). The CASC network produces actionable climate impacts and adaptation science to address natural and cultural resource management needs. Stakeholder engagement is an often-utilized strategy to ensure that scientific outputs and findings are useful and usable for planning, decision-making, or action. However, inappropriate selection of engagement strategies can lead to inequitable partnership development and inefficient allocation of resources (e.g., time, money). Bamzai-Dodson discussed a framework that provides language and guidance to help researchers be thoughtful in their selection of engagement methods and approaches for a given project and partner.   

These presentations were followed by a panel discussion, enabling participants to dig into some of the complexities of the science learned and how to apply it, especially in fast-changing world. 

“And the future is bright!” said Hu, “TU and USGS have recently identified some major objectives that we’re going to work on together. These include co-developing an emphasis on science translation; increasing our collaborative research; developing cross capacity building and training; more science tool and data development; and overall improved strategic conservation planning within the entire community.” 

Two anglers wade fishing on Big Horn River
Two anglers wade fishing on Big Horn River, Wyoming.

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