Acknowledge uncertainty, apply best available science to sage grouse
Cody – Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) Sage Grouse Coordinator Tom Christiansen recently gave a presentation on a topic with which he’s familiar – balancing incomplete science with management.
“Wildlife managers deal daily with incorporating science into management,” said Christiansen at the early November meeting of the Society for Range Management Wyoming Section, Soil and Water Conservation Society Wyoming Chapter and The Wildlife Society Wyoming Chapter.
He said it sometimes takes a double dose of objectivity training, which is 180 degrees from sensitivity training.
“Many of us make decisions with incomplete information on a daily basis,” he continued. “But the more I thought about the topic, I realized the use of incomplete science is worthy of more thoughtful consideration.”
“Wildlife issues have moved from the sports page to the front page,” he said of its increased attention. “They’ve gone from trivial to critically important, and there’s an increasing trend in using science in the formulation of policy.”
“With the increased emphasis on science comes a heavy burden – the bar for validity and reliability of information is inching higher, and it’s accompanied by a potential policy shift accompanied by social and economic effects,” he said.
Christiansen said in this day of diverse stakeholders, each with a different agenda, a higher threshold of proof is required. “Some professional wildlife biologists have data on one side of treat/don’t treat sagebrush debate, while on the other side there are folks just as dedicated, professional and well meaning who have collected data supporting the opposite argument.”
“While this is one of the most contentious issues in Wyoming in our profession, I see no reasonable course other than to apply the highest standards of science and publish the results to tease out the details of when, how, where and why sagebrush should or shouldn’t be treated,” he said.
He said another debate with uncertain scientific results is the need for water development in sage grouse habitat. “Some sage grouse local working groups have advocated for or implemented water projects. A southwest Wyoming working group has the unofficial motto of ‘Water is life.’ But there is scant, if any, evidence to suggest water availability is limiting sage grouse.”
Christiansen noted that not all published reports are created equal, including peer reviewed publications, dissertations and theses, progress reports and popular literature.
However, he gave a couple examples of what he thinks is the proper way to go about publishing a collection of information without full scientific proof. He cites the first as a recent document focusing on grazing’s influence on sage grouse habitat.
“To prepare this document I worked with educators and agency people because a document like that has been sorely needed and often requested for years, but research on the direct relationship between livestock grazing and sage grouse was, and is, rare,” he noted.
He said in the document the researchers acknowledged the uncertainty associated with the relationship between grazing and sage grouse. “There is a statement saying the document resulted from a series of meetings, field trips and peer reviews, and contains a collective understanding of ecosystem function in Wyoming sage grouse habitat.”
Because of those acknowledgements, Christiansen said the document represents an honest and ethical attempt to provide useful recommendations.
His second example is wind energy development’s effects on sage grouse. “I’m concerned some folks are emphasizing the uncertain impact of wind development on sage grouse, and failing to acknowledge the growing body of science suggesting significant negative impacts to other lekking grouse species,” he explained. “These results at the very least suggest a cautious and conservative approach, and the burden of proof rests squarely on the shoulders of industry to demonstrate the lack of impact before development.”
“Unless and until the process includes scientific protocols, all we have is a recipe for conflict, perpetual meetings and the status quo,” he noted. “Surprises are likely, but giving thoughtful consideration to the worst-case scenario is good planning.”
Of the sage grouse core area concept, Christainsen said there are concerns about connectivity, and he shares those concerns. “Have we set in motion a process for increased fragmentation?” he asked. “As long as political wills remain strong, I’m optimistic the sage grouse population will also remain strong, but how the upcoming governor’s race will affect core areas is anyone’s guess.”
“Dealing with an evolving map will prove difficult in terms of setting policy and land use planning, but can you imagine the level of development that might have been approved on sensitive sage grouse and other species?” he asked.
“There are times management actions, recommendations and policy decisions have to be made in the face of uncertainty,” he said. “It is imperative to acknowledge the uncertainty and seek out and apply the best science available.”
Christy Hemken is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.