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Can we manage for biological diversity in the absence of science?

June 16, 2010

Conservation of biological diversity is dependent on sound scientific information about underlying ecological processes. Current knowledge of the composition, distribution, abundance and life cycles of most species of plants and animals is incomplete, insufficient, unreliable, or nonexistent. Contemporary managers are also confronted with additional levels of complexity related to varying degrees of knowledge and understanding about interactions of species and ecosystems. Consequently, traditional species-oriented management schemes may have unintended consequences and ecosystem-oriented management initiatives may fail in the face of inadequate or fragmentary information on the structure, function, and dynamics of biotic communities and ecological systems. Nevertheless, resource managers must make decisions and manage based on the best biological information currently available. Adaptive resource management may represent a management paradigm that allows managers to learn something about the species or systems that they are managing while they are managing, but potential pitfalls lurk for such approaches. In addition to lack of control over the primary physical, chemical, and ecological processes, managers also lack control over social, economic, and political parameters affecting resource management options. Moreover, appropriate goals may be difficult to identify and criteria for determining success may be elusive. Some management responsibilities do not lend themselves to adaptive strategies. Finally, the lessons learned from adaptive management are usually obtained from a highly situational context that may limit applicability in a wider range of situations or undermine confidence that problems and solutions were properly diagnosed and addressed. Several scenarios are critically examined where adaptive management approaches may be inappropriate or ineffective and where management for biological diversity may be infeasible or inefficient without a sound scientific basis. Whereas some level of management must exist to meet agency responsibilities, more research is needed to conserve biological diversity.