2019 Program Archive: Linking the science of ecological transformation to RAD decisions

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Linking the science of ecological transformation to RAD decisions

Shelley Crausbay
Conservation Science Partners
Time Slot: 
Concurrent Sessions 4
Session Type: 

Climate change has the potential to transform ecosystem composition, structure, function, and services in profound ways that persist. However, the climate-adaptation community to date has largely focused on plans that anticipate resistance and resilience. As managers shift toward making decisions about managing ecological transformation, the best available science must be ready. A working group comprised of several US Federal land management agencies (Stewarding Ecological Transformation [SET]) is developing a framework to address this challenge. This framework defines a decision space in which managers choose RAD pathway(s) to resist, accept, or direct (RAD) change. This session will showcase how different scientific approaches can support different RAD decisions points. We will highlight models from paleorecords to show where the risk of ecological transformation is high, to map where directing change might be most needed and equitable. We will explore early warnings of ecological transformation from monitoring data to understand when transformation might happen and how to link advance notice to decisions. We will explore demographic models of recruitment after disturbance to better understand how transformation happens, and how disturbance creates opportunities to direct transformation if plans are ready. Finally, we will explore state-and-transition models to understand what systems may transform into, to help managers determine whether to accept autonomous change based on whether it is congruent with socio-ecological goals. Our symposium will end with a 30-minute session on how to effectively link science to RAD decisions. Now is the time to co-produce transformation science to support decision-making in land management agencies.

Stephen Jackson, Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center
Robin O'Malley, North Central Climate Adaptation Science Center
Synthesizing paleo-transformations to map today’s transformation risk
Shelley Crausbay, Conservation Science Partners
  • Amanda Kissel, Conservation Science Partners
  • Eric Stofferahn, Conservation Science Partners
  • Phil Higuera, University of Montana, W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation
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Ecological transformations (or regime shifts/state changes) are rapid reorganizations of an ecosystem’s species composition, governing processes, and functions that persist, with widespread implications for people and biodiversity conservation. Ecological transformation is increasingly expected in some locales with climate change, and a working group comprised of several US Federal land management agencies (Stewarding Ecological Transformation [SET]) is developing a framework and decision process to address this challenge. The SET framework describes a decision space in which managers choose among RAD pathway(s) to resist, accept, or direct change. What science is best suited for connecting to decision points for RAD management? We will kick off this symposium with a brief introduction to RAD decisions, and to the multiple ecological transformations that have occurred over the past 20,000 years. We are developing a better understanding of why past ecological transformations happened across the US West by leveraging an open database of paleoecological records (Neotoma) and an open tool to access paleoclimate simulation models (PaleoView). We consider the role of vegetation prior to transformation, rate of climate change, landscape characteristics such as geodiversity, and presence of wildfire. Our aim is to extend our understanding of the past to the contemporary landscape to map the likelihood of transformation in the 21st century, and contextualize future expectations within the history of past dynamics. We believe an understanding of where and why transformation is likely sets the stage for decision making.

Early Warnings of Ecosystem Transitions
Steve Carpenter, University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Transitions in complex systems, including ecosystems, can be caused by external forcing, internal instabilities, or a combination of the two. If the transition involves external forces then we enlarge the boundaries of the system to encompass the driver; for example, climate-driven increases in fire frequency are understood by considering climate and fire as an integrated system. Internal instabilities are signaled in advance by symptoms of low resilience: high variance; slow recovery after perturbation; growing spatial coherence; and in noisy systems, shorter exit times from stationary distributions. Trends in these indicators can be detected in advance by monitoring and time-series models. A data-based example is given from lake water quality. Social-ecological systems show similar indicators of change though dynamics are more complicated. Instability in a social-ecological system may indicate the possibility of transformation. Scenario processes involving the public, decision makers, and interdisciplinary scientists may help organize transformation. Examples are given from a global assessment and the Yahara2070 scenarios for the watershed around Madison, Wisconsin.

Anticipating and managing 21st century transformations in dryland ecosystems
John Bradford, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
  • Seth Munson, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
  • Caitlin Andrews, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
  • Brad Butterfield, Northern Arizona University, Dept. of Biological Sciences
  • Robert Massatti, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
  • Molly McCormick, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
  • David Pilliod, USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
  • Robert Shriver, USGS Southwest Biological Science Center
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Dryland ecosystems in western North America are characterized by water-limited environments with low and variable precipitation. As temperatures rise and weather extremes become more severe in the 21st century, these already-dry ecosystems are especially prone to transformation. Because disturbances, natural or anthropogenic, will often provide the catalyst for potential transformation, post-disturbance restoration represents an important opportunity to either avoid transformations or guide them toward desirable new states. However, dryland restoration is notoriously challenging, and capitalizing on these restoration opportunities requires recognizing the physical and biological controls that determine restoration outcomes and developing management strategies that maximize restoration effectiveness. Recent work has identified the specific environmental conditions (particularly temperature and soil moisture) whose fluctuations influence plant establishment in dryland systems. Long-term projections of those conditions indicate that successful regeneration can be highly episodic, and is likely to become less frequent in coming decades. However, recent results also suggest that adaptive restoration strategies may enhance success by anticipating favorable conditions and targeting restoration activities during those periods. Long-term collaborative partnerships, such as the Restoration and Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS) can leverage these new insights to help manage dryland transformations by recognizing the restrictions imposed by rising aridity and working within natural environmental fluctuations to identify and capitalize on episodic opportunities.

State-and-transition models as tools to navigate social-ecological transformation
Brandon Bestelmeyer, USDA Agricultural Resource Service
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State-and-transition models (STMs) generally refer to conceptual or computational models that represent ecosystem dynamics as transitions among discrete states. In this talk, I describe an approach to synthetic STMs that has been adopted by US and Mongolian land management agencies and by groups of land managers. The goal of this approach is a suite of STMs tailored to distinct ecosystem types that cover entire landscapes, regions, or nations. STMs are used to evaluate land areas with respect to ecosystem potential, risk of undesirable transition, likelihood of restoration, and to choose specific management actions. In this way, STMs serve as catalogs that link predictions about management outcomes to ecological context. Monitoring data refine these predictions and adjust long-term management. While the benefits of STMs as a basis for science-based adaptive management are obvious, we need greater integration of STMs with social systems in two ways. First, we should build support for collaborative management based on STMs at the community level. The Mongolia case shows that such management systems can be replicated via well-resourced, coordinated efforts. Second, STMs should be developed for social-ecological “states”, not just ecological states. Social-ecological models would provide a mechanistic understanding of human-environment interactions at the regional level, including the interactions of demographic change, technology, markets, and policies with land mosaics (comprising land use states and ecological states within land uses). Together, these efforts could help guide local management and regional to national policies that influence social-ecological transformation.

Panel-audience discussion: Linking science on ecological transformation to RAD decisions
Karen Prentice, US Bureau of Land Management
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Ecological transformations challenge land managers who are 1) managing for a species that will no longer survive within the set aside boundaries, 2) permitting an activity when the supporting resources may no longer be present, or 3) mitigating risks, i.e., wildfire, alongside compounding changes in environmental conditions. In this era of sustained, directional global change, decision makers need a framework to address the possibility of ecological transformation, alongside longstanding ideas of ecological resistance or resilience. The Stewarding Ecological Transformation (SET) decision process will identify the sideboards of the decision space in which managers choose RAD pathway(s) to resist, accept, or direct change. But, before a RAD decision can be made for any specific issue, science is needed to 1) assess current conditions, 2) identify environmentally feasible potential RAD futures, 3) assess potential RAD futures within a socio-ecological context, including laws, regulations, and policies specific to certain Federally managed lands , 4) assess the context within which that place occurs and the RAD decisions that have been made elsewhere, and 5) develop adaptive management practices that facilitate iterative changes. I will lead a capstone discussion, following four scientific talks that each take a different approach to ecological transformation, on how to effectively link science to RAD decisions. What are the decision points that existing science or science synthesis could touch? What decision points require new science? Now is the time to co-produce transformation science that responds to managers’ questions about ongoing or prospective ecological transformation and informs effective responses.