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Incorporating Evolutionary Theory on Adaptive Capacity into Management Practices

A new publication co-authored by National and Northwest CASC scientists provides evolutionary biologists with options for how to make their research on adaptive capacity more accessible for conservation practitioners.

Flock of 7 ducks in the air in a rough V formation
Flock of northern pintail flying at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. (Credit: Andrea Mott, USGS Western Ecological Research Center. Public domain.)

Although warming temperatures, more extreme weather, and altered rainfall patterns create a bleak future for many species, others are able to cope with or adjust to environmental changes, for example by evolving better heat tolerance or by learning to use new resources. Understanding this adaptive capacity is critical to predicting species’ ability to persist under climate change. Yet many resource managers are unclear about how to manage for adaptive capacity in practice, in part because of a historic disconnect between evolutionary biology and applied conservation.

A new study supported by the National CASC and co-authored by researchers from the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, National CASC, Northwest CASC and partners provides options for how to better integrate evolutionary theory into conservation biology. The authors incorporate guidance from successful knowledge exchange in other disciplines to generate four lessons for how evolutionary biologists can make their adaptive capacity research actionable and usable for natural resource managers. This work was informed by a multi-year discussion between evolutionary biologists, molecular ecologists, and conservation practitioners.

First, the authors recommend that evolutionary biologists learn the management contexts of natural resource managers to understand why practitioners do or do not use scientific evidence. Practical conservation initiatives can have social, political, and economic constraints that limit potential management strategies, and they often occur at smaller, local scales that don’t match the large-scale assumptions of evolutionary theories. Additionally, many managers don’t have access to subscription-based academic literature, creating barriers to accessing relevant and credible scientific information. Second, the authors recommend building a thorough evidence base about adaptive capacity management aimed at influencing management decisions. Actively managing adaptive capacity goes against previous “no action” paradigms employed by many conservation agencies, so managers need clear guidance about when to use this strategy and why, including applicable case studies. Third, the authors recommend that evolutionary biologists support the use of this evidence by translating theory into a format that conservation practitioners can use. They must ensure that advice is sufficiently general that it can be applied widely, while also accounting for complex realities of local conditions. Finally, the authors recommend that evolutionary biologists collaborate with conservation practitioners to develop strategies for effective, two-way knowledge exchange. This can help practitioners incorporate adaptive capacity research into evidence-based decision making while allowing scientists to understand real versus perceived knowledge gaps.

This guidance may enable scientists and natural resource managers to work together to better integrate adaptive capacity into on-the-ground climate adaptation management practices.

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