Getting the Message Across: Using Ecological Integrity to Communicate with Resource Managers

Brian R. Mitchell

This chapter describes and illustrates how concepts of ecological integrity, thresholds, and reference conditions can be integrated into a research and monitoring framework for natural resource management. Ecological integrity has been defined as a measure of the composition, structure, and function of an ecosystem in relation to the system’s natural or historical range of variation, as well as perturbations caused by natural or anthropogenic agents of change. Using ecological integrity to communicate with managers requires five steps, often implemented iteratively:

  1. Document the scale of the project and the current conceptual understanding and reference conditions of the ecosystem
  2. Select appropriate metrics representing integrity
  3. Define externally verified assessment points (metric values that signify an ecological change or need for management action) for the metrics
  4. Collect data and calculate metric scores, and
  5. Summarize the status of the ecosystem using a variety of reporting methods.

While we present the steps linearly for conceptual clarity, actual implementations of this approach may require addressing the steps in a different order or revisiting steps (such as metric election) multiple times as data are collected. Knowledge of relevant ecological thresholds is important when metrics are selected, because thresholds identify where small changes in an environmental driver produce large responses in the ecosystem. Metrics with thresholds at or just beyond the limits of a system’s range of natural variability can be excellent, since moving beyond the normal range produces a marked change in their values. Alternatively, metrics with thresholds within but near the edge of the range of natural variability can serve as harbingers of potential change. Identifying thresholds also contributes to decisions about selection of assessment points.

In particular, if there is a significant resistance to perturbation in an ecosystem, with threshold behavior not occurring until well beyond the historical range of variation, this may provide a scientific basis for shifting an ecological assessment point beyond the historical range. We present two case studies using ongoing monitoring by the US National Park Service Vital Signs program that illustrate the use of an ecological integrity approach to communicate ecosystem status to resource managers. The Wetland Ecological Integrity in Rocky Mountain National Park case study uses an analytical approach that specifically incorporates threshold detection into the process of establishing assessment points. The Forest Ecological Integrity of Northeastern National Parks case study describes a method for reporting ecological integrity to resource managers and other decision makers. We believe our approach has the potential for wide applicability for natural resource management.

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Citation

  • Mitchell BR, Tierney GL, Schweiger EW, Miller KM, Faber-Langendoen D, and Grace JB. [2014]. Getting the message across: Using ecological integrity to communicate with resource managers. Chapter 10 in: Guntenspergen GR, editor. Application of Threshold Concepts in Natural Resource Decision Making. Springer. 327 pp.