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Optimization of salt marsh management at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine, through use of structured decision making

September 28, 2021

Structured decision making is a systematic, transparent process for improving the quality of complex decisions by identifying measurable management objectives and feasible management actions; predicting the potential consequences of management actions relative to the stated objectives; and selecting a course of action that maximizes the total benefit achieved and balances tradeoffs among objectives. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, applied an existing, regional framework for structured decision making to develop an example of a prototype tool for optimizing tidal marsh management decisions for selected marsh management units at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine. The goal was to create a prototype that could be available for future implementation. Refuge biologists, refuge managers, and research scientists identified multiple potential management actions to improve the ecological integrity of seven marsh management units within the refuge and estimated the outcomes of each action in terms of regional performance metrics associated with each management objective. Value functions previously developed at the regional level were used to transform metric scores to a common utility scale, and utilities were summed to produce a single score representing the total management benefit that could be accrued from each potential management action. Constrained optimization was used to identify the set of management actions, one per marsh management unit, that could maximize total management benefits at different cost constraints at the refuge scale.

Management costs were estimated using limited available information, and estimated costs of individual management actions reflected relative differences among actions rather than actual expected expenditures. Results from this prototype showed how, for the objectives, actions, and estimated outcomes used for this example, total management benefits may increase consistently up to a certain estimated cost, and may continue to increase, at a lower rate, with further expenditures. Potential management actions in optimal portfolios at moderate total estimated costs included breaching or removing dikes, roads, or embankments; planting Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass); and digging runnels, or shallow creeks, on the marsh platform to improve surface-water drainage. Potential management actions in optimal portfolios at high estimated costs (for example, up to $550,000) included breaching embankments to restore tidal exchange followed by planting salt marsh vegetation. The potential management benefits were derived from predicted increases in the numbers of tidal marsh obligate birds and spiders (as an indicator of trophic health), and expected improvement in the capacity of marsh elevation to keep pace with sea-level rise and reduced duration of marsh-surface inundation. The prototype presented here does not resolve current management decisions; rather, it provides a framework for decision making at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge that can be updated for implementation as new data and information become available. Insights from this process may also be useful to inform future habitat management planning at the refuges.

Publication Year 2021
Title Optimization of salt marsh management at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, Maine, through use of structured decision making
DOI 10.3133/ofr20211080
Authors Hilary A. Neckles, James E. Lyons, Jessica L. Nagel, Susan C. Adamowicz, Toni Mikula, Kathleen M. O'Brien, Bri Benvenuti, Ryan Kleinert
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2021-1080
Index ID ofr20211080
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Patuxent Wildlife Research Center; Eastern Ecological Science Center