This month I’ve been getting acquainted with the Malleefowl Project. In Victoria, malleefowl monitoring is primarily run by the Victorian Malleefowl Recovery Group – that is, a community-based group of volunteers. Mike Bode, José Lahoz-Monfort, a couple of keen friends and I travelled out to Wyperfeld National Park for their annual training weekend on October 13-14.
The size of the group, the scale of their operations and the strength of their enthusiasm is really quite something. Over the summer, these volunteers visit hundreds of malleefowl mounds across Victoria (with little more than a slim chance of seeing the birds themselves!) to observe nest activity.
The main challenge is that sites are isolated and prone to extreme weather conditions – monitoring often requires camping for the weekend and walking between mounds on very hot days. The VRMG are equipped with satellite phones and strict safety procedures to ensure no-one gets lost. I can barely imagine how difficult this work must have been in the years before the group could access hand-held GPS!
Once at a mound volunteers collect a substantial set of data, prompted through each step by a very nifty custom-designed cybertracker application. These allow for thorough validation back in the office to identify recent malleefowl breeding activity, as well as other potential visitors to malleefowl mounds that might threaten successful hatching.
It was great to have a first look at the mallee environment and get to know some of the people driving malleefowl conservation in Victoria. They’ve developed an impressive data set over many years, and our team will try to put it to new and valuable use.
Last week I attended and presented some of my research at the Australasian Weeds Conference in Melbourne. I feared that the program might be dominated by acronym-laden government speak, herbicide hard-sells and over-parameterised models but this was unfounded. Instead we were treated to some terrific varied plenaries, a lively forum and some genuine exchanges amongst people working in weed policy, operations and research.
I think that some of the plenary speakers showed real vision for the future of weed management in Australia. Richard Hobbs and John Dwyer entreated us to shift away from assuming that all native species are good and all non-natives are bad, to a more holistic consideration of a species’ context, role, value and impact as well as the impact of any interventions we might make. (Dwyer boldly likened some current attitudes and activities to war-time xenophobia and propaganda.)
Paul Martin focused more on issues of governance and funding. He believes that public funding for weeds research isn’t likely to reach Weeds CRC heights again any time soon, and suggests we harness private wealth and community interest. He’s further concerned about poorly coordinated governance, high transaction costs and weak motivational arrangements, and calls for more research into the social dimensions of weed management.
Presentations by Chris Johnson and Jarvis Weston were just plain cool. They spoke, respectively, about Australia’s megafauna (tree-stripping snub-nosed kangaroos! geese bigger than emus!) and restoration of penguin nesting sites on Phillip Island (including the twenty-year buy-back and stripping of an entire housing estate).
Another highlight of the conference was the forum on Ecology of Invasive Species: bridging the gap between research and practice. Many of the future directions suggested echoed the plenary presentations – understanding the values and motivations of private citizens, modelling social groups as weed vectors, focusing on asset protection by understanding the variable (positive and negative) impacts of weeds across space. As for ‘bridging the gap’, it seems that there’s no substitute for establishing direct partnerships between researchers and practitioners. I listened to others’ stories and frustrations and it dawned on me just how rare and effective the Hawkweed Linkage has been these past few years. In fact, I was sitting next to my DPI counterpart Karen Herbert exchanging whispered comments throughout the afternoon. The collaborative one-on-one relationship that Karen and I have forged has really bridged a research-practice gap for hawkweed management, and it has been underpinned by a formal Linkage partnership specifying research and funding obligations. This has allowed us both to dedicate time and effort to a partnership as part of our job descriptions.
Hawkweeds had a pretty high profile at the conference. They featured in:
a poster about NSW orange hawkweed management from Jo Caldwell and her NSW Environment & Heritage colleagues,
a poster on Victorian hawkweed management from Karen Herbert (DPI) and Iris Curran (Parks Victoria),
a poster on using adapted eradographs to track eradication progress from Susie Hester (UNE) and Karen Herbert,
Linkage CI Roger Cousens‘ talk on next-generation models simulating King Devil hawkweed seeds dispersing by wind,
my talk about the hawkweed detection experiment I ran in January 2012.
It was great to speak to an audience of practitioners as well as academics. They really got the hang of what I was doing, asked some clever questions and put me on to some related projects and references that I would probably not have otherwise found. There might even be another gap-bridging collaboration in the works!
Over the past year, many QAECo members have been discussing issues of gender and science. We’re concerned about the representation of women in leadership roles, balancing career expectations and aspirations with personal lives and responsibilities, and the unconscious gender biases that plague us all. We’ve engaged in personal confessions, journal clubs, critique of university policy, and some relaxed ladies’-lunching.
A major recent influence on my own conscious gender attitudes has been Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender. It’s cleverly titled, scattered with sarcasm and lays out an argument that appeals enormously to me (hello, confirmation bias). Fine contends that there’s very little, if any, evidence that male and female brains are inherently different. Our brains are highly plastic, constantly soaking up cues from our gender normative environment, and have likely done so since even before we were born. Fine critiques many studies that claim males and females are ‘hard-wired’ to behave differently, revealing problematic study designs and biased interpretations.
In discussing the framing of gender studies, Fine also traces changes in attitudes towards gender differences. She quotes century-old assumptions that now seem hilarious, arrogant and unscientific, and wonders what present-day beliefs might be similarly dismissed in the future. For me it’s ultimately a heartening, rather than a frustrating, story. We’ve not yet arrived, I can contribute to a shift towards gender equity and it’s our culture, not my ‘hard-wiring’, that’s the primary limitation. Let’s do this!
Cordelia Fine was kind enough to visit QAEco earlier this month and share some of her more recent work. She focused on erroneous attributions of gender difference to studies using fMRI techniques, a topic that comes through in Delusions. However she delved further into a critique of the typical statistical analyses of the field – a topic close to many a QAEcologists’ heart! – and made some great points about the perils of post hoc data interpretation. I was surprised to leave the lecture reflecting more on the way I approach science than the way I approach gender issues.
In the last week of September Eve McDonald-Madden and Brendan Wintle brought together a couple dozen EDG researchers and friends to discuss adaptive management. The theory presented by Carl Walters and C.S. Holling in the late 1970s is eminently appealing to scientists and many decision-makers. How can we best manage (eco-)systems in the face of uncertainty? What’s our capacity to learn and reduce uncertainty as we manage? Are the risks of experimenting with our system outweighed by the long-term benefits of learning? (For a primer on adaptive management, you can check out thesetwo articles that I wrote for Decision Point back in 2008.)
We split into several groups, rearranging ourselves every half-day or so, knocking heads over different issues. Some of us focused on new analytical techniques for specific scenarios, others worked on simple and accessible representations of adaptive management principles, the malleefowl team developed strategies for an upcoming workshop, and on Friday morning we all reflected on the philosophy of adaptive management and why we so often fail to implement it.
I’m an avowed puzzle-solver, always attracted to a mathematically-framed problem, but I got a lot out of the broader-picture discussions that picked apart the assumptions underlying the adaptive management paradigm. There are clearly some (even many or most!) circumstances where it’s not the most suitable approach for environmental management, and we do it a disservice if we try to force every management issue into this framework. On the other hand, the process of framing a problem using adaptive management structures can make many of the conflicts, uncertainties and trade-offs at hand explicit. This can (I hope!) lead to better informed and more transparent decision-making even without fancy models and fully fledged adaptive management.