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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Tapping the Ivory Tower

July 29, 2001

How academic-agency partnerships can advance conservation

By P. Dee Boersma with Sarah DeWeerdt

It’s a familiar scenario: Scientists who work for government agencies, though genuinely committed to conservation, face a perennial lack of money and time and move from crisis to crisis while slogging through a mire of paperwork. University scientists, though insulated from legal mandates and political pressures, are caught in the publish-or-perish race for degrees, tenure, and academic prominence and may not appreciate the practical aspects of species conservation.

These two groups often eye each other with suspicion. Academics wonder why agencies don’t know more about the biology of species they are trying to protect and why they take so long to get anything done; agency scientists grumble that academics are too quick to criticize and often undertake research projects that are difficult to apply to real-world concerns.

But if you look at this problem in another way, you might see opportunity. Universities have armies of interested, bright students who are always looking for challenging and useful research projects and faculty who have the time and ability to step back and ask the big questions. Agencies, charged with solving on-the-ground conservation problems, have the ability to make concrete contributions to environmental protection.

A recent review of Species Recovery Plans (SRPs), involving over 350 faculty, students, and agency staff members nationwide, took the “opportunity” view. The project, which I coordinated as president of the Society for Conservation Biology, has produced a detailed portrait of existing SRPs and an evaluation of the science behind these documents. What may be a more important result of the project, however—and what can’t be captured in a traditional scientific paper—are the ties that were created between academic and agency scientists and the education of each group about the difficulties and opportunities of working together. The project demonstrated that academic-agency partnerships can advance conservation while educating students and suggests a new way to approach large research questions.

The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) directs the responsible agency (usually the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS, or the National Marine Fisheries Service, NMFS) to prepare a recovery plan for each species listed as threatened or endangered, unless doing so would not aid the species. Between 1973 and 1998, the FWS approved 931 SRPs, covering species from lowly isopods to the charismatic Florida panther. There are plans for plants, mammals, mosses, and butterflies. Some plans run to thousands of pages; others are short and action-oriented.

But with all this diversity there has been little understanding of what characteristics make for a good recovery plan, or even what a “good” plan means. Too often, the plans end up gathering dust on some corner bookshelf.

By 1998, when the SRP review was initiated, the documents had become the subject of a contentious scientific and political debate. Many academic scientists had reservations about the adequacy of the biological information available for writing SRPs. Some FWS scientists feared the recovery planning process—the plans are produced by local field offices and approved by regional offices—would not be consistent enough to be effective. Private landowners feared that SRPs would limit their property rights.

There was broad public support for the idea that we should not allow species to go extinct, but the questions are How can this be done? and Can a written document be of use? A review of SRPs could help answer that question.

A national review of Habitat Conservation Plans (HCPs) initiated in 1997 provided a model for the project. HCPs are similar to SRPs in that they are large, complex documents authorized by the ESA and aimed at helping species in trouble (although the regulatory requirements for SRPs and HCPs differ). The SRP review followed the same rough outlines as the HCP study, building on the successes of the earlier project while making some changes to help things run more smoothly the second time.

“After the HCP project, it was clear that there was some frustration on the part of the agencies because they hadn’t been included in the project,” says NMFS ecologist Peter Kareiva, who coordinated the HCP review and was also involved in the SRP study. Criticism from academic scientists had put the agencies on the defensive because they felt they hadn’t had a chance to explain their point of view. “Actually having the agencies involved is important because they pay more attention to the results if they helped organize the study.”

One of the first tasks, then, was to get the FWS, which has responsibility for most endangered species, on board. According to Debby Crouse, a biologist with the FWS Endangered Species Program, the agency thought the project sounded interesting but was concerned about some aspects of the study design. “The desire to include a large number of people in some ways conflicts with the desire to limit noise in the data,” she explains. Instead of rejecting the project, the agency decided to work with the academic scientists to resolve some of these concerns. The FWS helped fund the review and was involved in every stage of the project from developing the questionnaire to reviewing papers before publication.

The next step was to figure out what questions to ask about SRPs. Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Washington, led a graduate seminar during Fall 1998 in which students designed the questionnaire used in the review.

This step also took into account lessons from the previous study of HCPs. The questionnaire for that project had been developed over a weekend by a small group. The coordinators of the SRP study hoped that involving a broader group of people in a longer, more deliberate process would lead to a less ambiguous questionnaire and more uniform answers.

Orians’ students began by reviewing existing literature on SRPs and used this information to develop a first draft of the questionnaire. They broke up into small groups and tried the questionnaire out on five very different SRPs. Then, the students discussed the problems that had emerged during the trial run and modified the questionnaire accordingly. Throughout the process, students received advice from FWS personnel and from people who had developed the HCP questionnaire.

“Students found there was real intellectual content in this activity,” reports Orians. “You could learn something about the development and design of SRPs by developing the questionnaire, just by asking What do we want to know about?”

It helped that the seminar included students from an array of academic disciplines, including anthropology, law, and conservation biology. “They all asked different kinds of questions,” Orians says. “That fed into the richness of what we came out with and also into the educational value.”

In sum, says Orians, “Our experience confirmed our initial impression that time invested in the development of the questionnaire is time well spent. An ounce of prevention is worth many pounds of cure.”

The questionnaire was reviewed and further revised by project leaders and FWS scientists at a December 1998 meeting. The final questionnaire had nearly 2,500 questions, ranging from the very basic—When was the recovery plan approved?—to the extremely specific—How many tasks in the recovery plan call for augmentation of food supplies?

The questionnaire and a 30-page instruction booklet were sent to graduate seminars at 19 U.S. universities. A typical seminar had about 15 students led by a faculty member in the biological sciences, and each seminar was assigned a contact person from the local FWS field office. Students were instructed to use only the SRP to respond to the questionnaire.

All seminars began by analyzing the same multi-species recovery plan, chosen because it was recent, complex, and likely to illuminate general problems with the questionnaire. Three FWS personnel familiar with this plan also answered the questionnaire. This exercise was meant as a “control” to help reduce differences among seminars and to start at a common point.

Each seminar was assigned 10 to 15 SRPs from a random sample of 135 SRPs. The reviewed SRPs were from the years 1977 to 1998, covering 85 plant species and 96 animal species. The plans included 100 single-species plans, 29 multi-species plans, and 6 ecosystem plans.

“Lots of people found the data collection excessively detailed,” says University of Washington graduate student Jonathan Hoekstra, in what must be an understatement regarding the 2,500-question survey. Hoekstra helped develop the questionnaire and later fielded queries about interpretation to help standardize responses. He says the questionnaire designers chose comprehensiveness over brevity, knowing that not all questions would be applicable to all plans.

“One problem was that when the questionnaire was created, we hadn’t read the plans yet, so we were trying to capture the unknown,” Hoekstra continues. “Ideally, if you could focus ahead of time on the outputs you’re interested in, you could simplify the process going in. We wanted the opportunity to address anything that came up.”

Students entered their data directly into a centralized data bank via a website designed by Jim Regetz of the University of Washington. This helped ensure consistency and accuracy of the data because the computer automatically verified that data codes were valid. It also minimized the “goofs” that occur when hard-copy data are re-entered or data files are transferred by computer—problems that had plagued the HCP review.

Technology was essential to this phase of the project. To manage computer traffic, keep seminars on track, facilitate decisions, and maintain similar standards, each seminar selected one person to act as “e-liaison.” Students were in communication through the website so that information was readily exchanged and seminars could stay in touch with each other. Seminar leaders also kept in touch via e-mail.

The decentralized structure of the project also contributed to some problems, however, because not everybody involved in the project could see the big picture. “As the process continued, lots of graduate students felt they were forced labor,” says Hoekstra. “They didn’t understand how their work was going to contribute meaningfully.” Likewise, some of the FWS field staff contacts felt that the project was a large time burden and didn’t see how their work would make a difference. Meanwhile, some of the seminar leaders felt frustrated because they were recruited after the study had been designed and felt they were simply carrying out someone else’s project.

Still, this disgruntlement was accompanied by suggestions on how to improve the process next time, such as by designing a shorter questionnaire, recruiting seminar leaders earlier to create a more collaborative atmosphere, and involving fewer universities.

Students, seminar leaders, and FWS personnel discussed and analyzed data at two workshops sponsored by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), held in May and September 1999 in Santa Barbara, California.

The frustration of the data collection phase receded once the analysis began. “Now that I’m seeing some of the results, I think that if people hadn’t worked that hard we wouldn’t have got ten that information,” says Alan Clark, a University of Washington graduate student who was involved in the analysis of the data.

A dozen papers are currently in preparation describing various conclusions gleaned from the study. For example, the data show that single-species plans exhibit a better understanding of species biology than do multi-species and ecosystem-based plans, and species covered by single-species plans are more likely to be recovering. Recovery criteria that are clearly linked to the biology of a species also create a greater likelihood of species recovery as does inclusion of both federal and non-federal participants in the recovery planning process. The data also indicate that while revisions of recovery plans often incorporate new information on species biology and status, they are not necessarily paired with improvements in recovery criteria or monitoring. Making this link would probably benefit species recovery.

Some participants caution that this study does not provide the last word on the science of recovery planning. “To us, the SRP is a tool on the way to the goal of recovery,” says Debby Crouse. “Ultimately, the recovery success of a species depends not only on a good SRP but on implementation.” And implementation, of course, is a lot harder to assess.

Still, many believe that the data collected in the study will, eventually, benefit species. “The FWS has been so heavily involved in this project, they already have an idea of what the weaknesses of the SRP process are,” says Alan Clark. “That will surely feed into the revision of guidelines for recovery planning. The impact will be subtle at first but can do nothing but grow from here.”

In any case, the most important achievement of the SRP review may be the collaboration forged between agencies and academic institutions. Loyal Mehrhoff, a former FWS biologist now with the National Park Service, says, “The best aspect of the project in my mind was that it accomplished things for both FWS and the academic community. The academic community got a good educational activity for students and, to a lesser degree, faculty regarding how to do a study like this as well as what SRPs do and don’t do. The agency got a chance to improve ties with the academic community. They also got an objective view of what the agency is doing in the conservation area.”

The project also helped bridge the cultural gap between academic and agency scientists. Jonathan Hoekstra, who has also worked for the FWS, says, “Lots of folks who consider themselves conservation biologists are very good scientists but are almost completely naïve to the legal and regulatory constraints that exist.” As students and faculty learned about the real-world aspects of species recovery and the informational and monetary constraints an agency faces, agency scientists learned to be more comfortable with their counterparts in academe. “Some agency people involved in the seminars have built up personal ties to academics,” says Loyal Mehrhoff. Now that they know there’s a group of academics out there who have studied and even authored papers on SRPs, agency scientists may be more likely to call up academic scientists and discuss these issues with them.

And the academic scientists may be more likely to respond. Questions about distribution, abundance, population structure, monitoring, and other basic parameters needed to measure how well a species is doing often are seen as mundane, not on the cutting edge of science, by academics. But the SRP review revealed that a lack of biological knowledge of endangered species is hampering effective recovery planning and monitoring. Perhaps now that they see how little is in fact known, academic scientists will be more likely to tackle these questions.

Some of this knowledge may be gathered through further collaborative projects. Many participants in the SRP review are anxious to strengthen the connections between academic and agency scientists by working together again. Although novel now, the collaborative process could be used to address many conservation questions. It could be used for a small-scale, relatively inexpensive, local project or an ambitious international review. Tapping the ivory tower is one of the cheapest ways to advance conservation and build knowledge about environmental threats, combining the best aspects of the academic and agency worlds.

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