The Ecosystem Approach from a Practical Point of View


Article by USFWS Director Jamie Rappaport Clark, appeared in June 1999 issue of Conservation Biology Journal (v.13, n.3), page 679 to 681

For years the scientific community has bemoaned the failure of policymakers to heed its call for an ecosystem approach to land management. At the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), we have been listening. As director, I have challenged the agency to pioneer the practical implementation of an ecosystem approach. But to transform this approach from the theoretical to the practical, we will have to overcome two real-world constraints: (1) minimal knowledge of ecosystem extinctions and (2) immediate human demands on the landscape that cannot be ignored. I believe that the USFWS can overcome these limitations, but it will take collaboration with the full community of interests in any and all ecosystems, and with the scientific community that campaigned for the approach. I therefore issue this challenge to scientists interested in effecting conservation: get involved in our endeavor.

Scientists need to understand that the dearth of knowledge on ecosystems affects management decisions. How can managers base decisions on ecosystem health when few scientific studies have been conducted at an ecosystem level? After all, we can hazard only a vague guess as to even the number of species that exist on our planet, between 5 and 30 million, according to biologist E. 0. Wilson. How much can we know about the landscape when we cannot even be certain that we have accounted for all the species that interact with it?

By advocating an ecosystem approach, the scientist is urging the wildlife manager to take a big risk, to leave behind the time-tested single-species approach. The USFWS's history inspires trust in the single-species approach. A USFWS manager can draw confidence, for instance, from our success in recovering waterfowl populations or bringing back critically endangered species from the brink of extinction. Further, under the singlespecies approach, the desired end is clearly defined and measurable: the stabilization of the target species' population. The never-before-implemented ecosystem approach offers neither security nor certainty.

The wariness on the part of managers is further exacerbated by the fact that the scientific community has yet to come to agreement on a generally recognized definition of an ecosystem approach. Definitions have been proffered by Clark and Zaunbrecher (1987), Overbay (1992), Grumbine (1994), Noss and Cooperrider (1994), Meffe and Carroll (1997), and others. This is to be expected for a new and evolving concept. Nonetheless, a manager often feels the need to have management units clearly defined. Although ecologists might argue against depicting ecosystems as lines on a map (what would an ecosystem that includes migratory birds look like on a map?), a practical management approach demands that they be defined that way.

Although individual members of the scientific community have offered various thoughts on how to define ecosystems geographically for the purpose of practical management, there is not unanimous agreement on this topic. The USFWS therefore decided to base its ecosystem approach on a type of natural system that has widely recognized and generally well-defined boundaries: watersheds.

Based on watersheds mapped by the U.S. Geological Survey, the USFWS has clearly defined 53 management units, and ecosystem teams have been formed for each of them. These teams represent a new approach for the USFWS. In the past, the different programs of the USFWS tackled their work independently of one another. Ecological Services, Fisheries, and Refuges were separate entities within the USFWS, elements of which might be working in the same vicinity but on distinct issues that fell in their respective areas of expertise. The ecosystem teams encourage cross-program interaction to deal with the issues that affect a specific geographic area. In this way, the ecosystem teams also practice an interdisciplinary approach, bringing in knowledge and expertise from the various branches of the science field.

In addition to a clearly defined management unit on which to base organizational structure, basing an ecosystem approach on watersheds has other benefits for the USFWS. Consider, for instance, that 45% of threatened and endangered species depend on aquatic and wetland habitats. Further, watersheds are of vital human importance, which permits conservationists to clearly make the connection between ecosystem health and human health. Finally, because the ecological connections of a watershed are relatively obvious-upstream pollution gradually will trickle downstream-our management approach can be easily explained to the public.

This last point is of crucial importance. Demographers estimate that by 2050 the population of the United States will increase by 125 million people-the equivalent of 15 New York Cities. It is inevitable in the future that human encroachment on open spaces will worsen. Partnerships, therefore, will play a large part in future conservation efforts, and our work must be understood by the public. In the next century, many of the great conservation victories will be achieved in cooperation with people who have a different perspective on resource management than we do. We must understand their point of view and we must be able to convey ours.

For that reason, it is important that we appreciate the immediate needs of the people presently living on the landscape. Success depends on understanding their concerns and working with them to find solutions that address both human and wildlife needs. Only in this way can we begin to foster a fundamental change in the relationship between people and the land. As Aldo Leopold so eloquently put it a half century ago, we need to instill "...a land ethic [that] changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it." With a public that embraces the land ethic, we can expect fewer "train wrecks" such as the collision between the timber industry and conservationists that occurred over the Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest.

In efforts to engage the public in our conservation work, the USFWS has developed a number of management tools. Habitat conservation plans (HCPs) are one such tool. This planning process allows development to continue while providing for the conservation of species. An HCP describes, among other things, how to minimize and mitigate the anticipated effects development will have on species. Given that our understanding of ecosystems is constantly evolving, we must identify areas of uncertainty and build adaptive management into HCPs. Adaptive management acknowledges uncertainty and the value of experimentation and learning from experience. It recognizes the value of scientific data but also accepts that the understanding of a given phenomenon will continue to evolve with ongoing research. In this atmosphere of evolving knowledge, the manager needs to create mechanisms that are flexible, so that they can be rapidly adjusted to changing situations. In this regard, it is essential that scientists engage in the HCP process. The scientific community has the expertise to identify areas of uncertainty and to devise a range of actions along with monitoring methods that will provide a feedback loop.

Adaptive management will be a great help in our work with private landowners. We need to understand that, when working with private landowners, we damage our reputation in their eyes if we sign an agreement but then revise it at a later date based on new scientific data. We need to assure landowners that there are no surprises. Consequently, we must enter into the original agreement with foresight, to identify situations and circumstances that might require adjustments in the future, so that a landowner is aware of them from the beginning. Science needs to help us identify where we can take some chances.

The kinds of land management plans I envision will resemble what the USFWS is doing on a large scale with the San Diego Multi-Species Conservation Plan. Few counties in the nation match San Diego's tally of threatened and endangered species and unique habitats, or its rate of population growth and development. Through the multispecies plan, the USFWS worked with county officials to devise a land-use plan that has, as its centerpiece, the establishment of a 171,900-acre refuge that provides habitat and long-term protection for 85 species.

We at the USFWS are proud of what has been accomplished for species and habitat conservation in San Diego. The decisions we made were based on the best science available at the time. We need to ask ourselves what we can do based on what we do know, and not ponder what we could do if we only knew everything.

The USFWS challenges the scientific community to get involved in our ecosystem approach. Scientists--with their knowledge and understanding of the big picture--need to reach out to land managers and offer to participate in the decision-making process. A perfect opportunity to do that has been created through the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997. That act requires each national wildlife refuge to develop a comprehensive conservation plan. The USFWS would embrace the participation of outside scientists in this endeavor. In addition, scientists can offer their knowledge and expertise to USFWS ecosystem teams to help us write, review, and revise our plans. They can also help us devise ways to monitor and evaluate our progress. Managers need help in identifying the biological goals and objectives they are striving toward. In the past, their focus has been on stabilizing populations of target species; now they are being asked to restore ecological balances. The complexities of making decisions about resources often are overwhelming. Scientists also need to help us relate to the public; we need to explain our management decisions to the public and explore alternatives with them.

The need to communicate with the public will require scientists to do more than explain the biological reasons behind a decision. Scientists must also help us relate what we are doing to the people: how does our work directly benefit them? To answer this question, we need the scientific data to frame conservation issues in the context of economic consequences and human health. The USFWS welcomes your input on all of these issues, and our regional directors (Table 1 ) would be happy to put you in touch with the ecosystem team leaders in your area.

Because we do not fully comprehend all ecosystem processes, land managers must rely on scientists of all types to fill in the gaps, so that their decisions are as well informed as they can be. Conservation biologists, with their mix of social and biological sciences, are in a unique position to be of great service in this regard.

As the USEWS experiments with the practical implementation of a scientific approach that is still maturing, we welcome constructive criticism. But we expect more than that from the scientific community. We expect that you will roll up your sleeves, join us in the field, and work with our land managers on ways to improve our approach.

Literature Cited

Clark, T. W., and D. Zaunbrecher. 1987. The greater Yellowstone ecosystem: the ecosystem concept in natural policy and management. Renewable Resources Journal Summer:8-16.

Gnittbine, R. E. 1994. What is ecosystem management? Conservation Biology 8:27-38.

Meffe, G. K., C. R. Carroll, and contributors. 1997. Principles of conservation biology. 2nd edition. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, Massachusetts.

Noss, R. F., and A. Y. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving nature's legacy: protecting and restoring biodiversity. Island Press, Covelo, California.

Overbay, J. C. 1992. Ecosystem management. Pages 3-15 in Proceedings of the national workshop: taking an ecosystem approach to management. Publication WO-WSA-3. U.S. Forest Service, Washington