Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit


Date of this Version



Published in Ecological Systems: Selected Entries from the Encyclopedia of Sustainability Science and Technology (2013) 125-146. DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4419-0851-3


US government work.


Adaptive management is an approach to natural resource management that emphasizes learning through management based upon the philosophy that knowledge is incomplete and much of what is thought to be known is actually wrong, but despite uncertainty, managers and policymakers must act. Although the concept of adaptive management has resonated with resource management scientists and practitioners following its formal introduction in 1978, it has and continues to remain little practiced and much misunderstood. Misunderstanding is largely based upon the belief that adaptive management is what management has always been, a trial and error attempt to improve management outcomes. But unlike a trial and error approach, adaptive management has explicit structure, including a careful elucidation of goals, identification of alternative management objectives and hypotheses of causation, and procedures for the collection of data followed by evaluation and reiteration. Since its initial introduction and description, adaptive management has been hailed as a solution to endless trial and error approaches to complex natural resource management challenges and recently, it has become increasingly referenced under various forms (please refer to following sections) (Fig. 8.1). Regardless of the particular definition of adaptive management used, and there are many, adaptive management emphasizes learning and subsequent adaptation of management based upon that learning. The process is iterative, and serves to reduce uncertainty, build knowledge, and improve management over time in a goaloriented and structured process. However, adaptive management is not a panacea for the navigation of “wicked problems” as it does not produce easy answers, and is appropriate in only a subset of natural resource management problems where both uncertainty and controllability are high (Fig. 8.2). Where uncertainty is high but controllability is low, scenarios are a more appropriate approach. Adaptive management is a poor fit for solving problems of intricate complexity, high external influences, long time spans, high structural uncertainty, and with low confidence in assessments (e.g., climate change). However, even in such situations, adaptive management may be the preferred alternative, and can be utilized to resolve or reduce structural uncertainty.