Many conservation organisations are striving to undertake evidence-based management to help guide effective management of natural systems. This is where the best available evidence, like ecological research or monitoring data, are used to support management decisions. An important feature of evidence-based management is that it can assist conservation practitioners in making often difficult decisions about when to intervene in a system to prevent undesirable changes.

Decision triggers represent a point or zone in the status of a monitored variable indicating when management intervention is required to address undesirable ecosystem changes (Figure 1).

Figure 1_final
Figure 1: Decision triggers (horizontal dashed lines) representing a target for management intervention.

Decision triggers have received increasing attention from the scientific community, who have suggested that they facilitate more proactive and transparent management of ecosystems (see our paper in Biological Conservation for these academic perspectives). From a management perspective, decision triggers offer conservation practitioners greater clarity about when and where to intervene in a system. However, there has been little consideration of whether practitioners in management organisations support the adoption of, or even use of decision triggers in practice.

In our recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology, we share the perspectives of conservation practitioners from protected area management organisations in Australia and New Zealand, on the progress towards using of decision triggers for protected area management.

It turns out that there are a wide range of organisational motivations for developing and using decision triggers, which go well beyond the desire to prevent negative conservation outcomes (Figure 2). Other important motivations for developing and using decision triggers include: supporting decision-making by providing clarity about when and how to act, improving transparency of organizational decisions, removing the need for guess work, and guarding against the paralysing effects of uncertainty.

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Figure 2: The motivations for organisations developing and using decision triggers, ordered from most to least frequently cited by the Australian and New Zealand organisations.

Support for a decision triggers approach has manifested as ad hoc examples, but only for well-understood threats or controversial management issues. For example, to manage significant threats to biodiversity (e.g., fire or invasive species management), setting quotas for harvesting or controlling native species, and determining when to remove threatened populations from the wild.

The practitioners in our study shared their views on the operational barriers (issues within the organisations) and scientific knowledge gaps (lack of knowledge or techniques) impeding the development and implementation of decision triggers. Practitioners revealed that most organisations are facing similar challenges (e.g., insufficient resources and the lack of a process and methods for developing decision triggers across different contexts), which is hampering the routine use of decision triggers. Gaps in our scientific understanding were also seen as a major issue impeding the adoption of decision trigger (e.g., uncertainties around ecological processes, and a lack of targeted, robust and reliable baseline monitoring data).

Practitioners are keen to adopt decision triggers as part of routine management for a range of threats, species and ecosystems. However, integrating decision triggers into day-to-day management requires methods that can be widely applied. Practitioners were very clear that they would appreciate support from the academic community to overcome the barriers they face.

Practitioners are calling for an overarching process and supporting methods to develop decision triggers. A key recommendation from our study is that guidance on how to develop decision triggers is required. An essential element of any guidance will be flexibility, such that decision triggers can be developed for different management contexts, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, we believe that many critical steps needed for developing decision triggers already exist in most evidence-based management frameworks already used by conservation organisations. You can read about our full set of recommendations here.

Achieving the potential of decision triggers to support evidence-based conservation will require collaboration between conservation practitioners and scientists to demonstrate a flexible approach that can be applied within existing evidence-based management frameworks across different management contexts.

We are currently developing detailed guidance to provide practitioners with a clear understanding of how to integrate decision triggers within their organisations’ frameworks. This approach will be tested through a series of case studies to illustrate how decision triggers can be applied to managing species, ecosystems and threatening processes. If you would like to find out more about our upcoming research, please contact Carly Cook.

This blog post was written by Prue Addison, Kelly de Bie, and Carly Cook.

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