US Fish & Wildlife Service


Date of this Version



Trans. North Am. Wildl. and Nat. Resour. Conf. 65:94-108.


Waterfowl managers in North America have been relentless in their pursuit of biological understanding, driven by a conviction that “science” eventually will provide the certitude necessary for effective management policies. Today, the system of waterfowl management in North America is unparalleled among conservation programs in terms of scope, complexity, and cost (Hawkins et al. 1984). The record of accomplishment has been impressive, especially when compared with the more somber accounts of resource exploitation and collapse that tend to characterize much of the history of natural resource development (Ludwig et al. 1993). For all of the success, however, great uncertainty persists about the impacts of harvest and other relevant factors on the biological and social systems of interest. This lack of understanding continues to provoke controversy in the setting of waterfowl hunting regulations, particularly in the U.S. where most of the North American waterfowl harvest occurs.

In response to a rising tide of regulatory frustration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a formal framework for the adaptive management of waterfowl hunting regulations in 1995. Adaptive harvest management (AHM) is intended to provide effective, or at least more objective, decisions in the face of uncertain regulatory outcomes, and a systematic approach for reducing those uncertainties. Some managers have characterized AHM as revolutionary, while others view it simply as a logical evolution of the previous management approach. After several years of implementation, comprehension and expectations of AHM vary greatly, despite a substantial investment in communication with both internal and external audiences.

In retrospect, AHM was accepted rather readily by waterfowl managers, perhaps reflecting the belief that difficulties in harvest regulation are principally a function of incomplete biological information. After all, this narrow focus has been the driving force throughout much of the history of waterfowl management, and the expectation that science can resolve management problems has become rather pervasive. As a result, AHM occasionally is perceived as a panacea, with expectations that belie the complexity of both biological and socio-political systems. To the surprise of some, AHM has sometimes increased contentiousness in decision making, while (at least so far) failing to reduce key uncertainties regarding regulatory impacts.

The failure of AHM to meet some managers’ expectations may be in part because the process is challenging the traditional belief system that provides context for those expectations (Gunderson et al. 1995). Because of the explicit and formal nature of the AHM process, managers are being forced to question long-held beliefs about their ability to understand and influence the managed system, and about the potential of biological science to engender policy consensus. We characterize these traditional beliefs as myths of control, learning, and goal setting.