Setting conservation management thresholds using a novel participatory modeling approach

We devised a participatory modeling approach for setting management thresholds that show when management intervention is required to address undesirable ecosystem changes. This approach was designed to be used when management thresholds: must be set for environmental indicators in the face of multiple competing objectives; need to incorporate scientific understanding and value judgments; and will be set by participants with limited modeling experience. We applied our approach to a case study where management thresholds were set for a mat-forming brown alga, Hormosira banksii, in a protected area management context. Participants, including management staff and scientists, were involved in a workshop to test the approach, and set management thresholds to address the threat of trampling by visitors to an intertidal rocky reef. The approach involved trading off the environmental objective, to maintain the condition of intertidal reef communities, with social and economic objectives to ensure management intervention was cost-effective. Ecological scenarios, developed using scenario planning, were a key feature that provided the foundation for where to set management thresholds. The scenarios developed represented declines in percent cover of H. banksii that may occur under increased threatening processes. Participants defined 4 discrete management alternatives to address the threat of trampling and estimated the effect of these alternatives on the objectives under each ecological scenario. A weighted additive model was used to aggregate participants’ consequence estimates. Model outputs (decision scores) clearly expressed uncertainty, which can be considered by decision makers and used to inform where to set management thresholds. This approach encourages a proactive form of conservation, where management thresholds and associated actions are defined a priori for ecological indicators, rather than reacting to unexpected ecosystem changes in the future.

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