US Geological Survey


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Johnson, F. A., M. J. Eaton, G. McMahon, R. Nilius, M. R. Bryant, D. J. Case, J. Martin, N. J. Wood, and L. Taylor. 2015. Global change and conservation triage on National Wildlife Refuges. Ecology and Society 20(4):14. ES-07986-200414


2015 by the author(s).


National Wildlife Refuges (NWRs) in the United States play an important role in the adaptation of social-ecological systems to climate change, land-use change, and other global-change processes. Coastal refuges are already experiencing threats from sea-level rise and other change processes that are largely beyond their ability to influence, while at the same time facing tighter budgets and reduced staff. We engaged in workshops with NWR managers along the U.S. Atlantic coast to understand the problems they face from global-change processes and began a multidisciplinary collaboration to use decision science to help address them. We are applying a values-focused approach to base management decisions on the resource objectives of land managers, as well as those of stakeholders who may benefit from the goods and services produced by a refuge. Two insights that emerged from our workshops were a conspicuous mismatch between the scale at which management can influence outcomes and the scale of environmental processes, and the need to consider objectives related to ecosystem goods and services that traditionally have not been explicitly considered by refuges (e.g., protection from storm surge). The broadening of objectives complicates the decision-making process, but also provides opportunities for collaboration with stakeholders who may have agendas different from those of the refuge, as well as an opportunity for addressing problems across scales. From a practical perspective, we recognized the need to (1) efficiently allocate limited staff time and budgets for short-term management of existing programs and resources under the current refuge design and (2) develop long-term priorities for acquiring or protecting new land/habitat to supplement or replace the existing refuge footprint and thus sustain refuge values as the system evolves over time. Structuring the decision-making problem in this manner facilitated a better understanding of the issues of scale and suggested that a long-term solution will require a significant reassessment of objectives to better reflect the comprehensive values of refuges to society. We discuss some future considerations to integrate these two problems into a single framework by developing novel optimization approaches for dynamic problems that account for uncertainty in future conditions.