I spent one-third of 2016 outside of Melbourne! Much of my travel was motivated by my work. Though I had lofty goals of blogging on the go, I didn’t progress beyond a single draft post. But once December rolled round I shared a slideshow of travel highlights with the QAECO lab – here’s a few annotated pics.
Travel is one of the great privileges of my job! In 2016 it exposed me to such a diversity of ecosystems, management challenges and research approaches. In 2017 I’m expecting to stay a little closer to home, transferring these insights to my own work.
My flight from Tokyo had barely landed before I set off for Perth with the malleefowl adaptive management research team (including Mike Bode, José Lahoz-Monfort, Tim Burnard and Joe Benshemesh). We’re embarking on an ambitious landscape-scale experiment to help understand the role of foxes in malleefowl conservation. While we know that foxes do take malleefowl eggs, juveniles and occasionally even adult birds, is this predation a key threat to malleefowl persistence? And furthermore, is baiting an effective tool for mitigating any impacts that foxes may have on malleefowl?
We’re finding out who is baiting, who isn’t, and what sites are sufficiently similar to be compared. José’s initial analysis of historical malleefowl data suggests suggests that we’d need at least ten site pairs monitored over at least 5 years to pick up a plausible difference in malleefowl breeding between baited and unbaited locations. This workshop setting allowed us to get to know the specific sites, their management contexts and their malleefowl populations better, working out what kind of monitoring is feasible and potential barriers for inclusion.
A week later we moved on to Mildura (this time with Rosanna van Hespen in tow) to meet land managers spanning New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia and representing OEH NSW, Parks NSW, the Western LLS, Parks Victoria, DEWNR SA, Federation University, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, the VMRG and private properties. There were many more people and sites to get to know. We also had some important conversations about fox monitoring – how can we develop reliable indicators of fox density, activity or predation? Rosanna’s research project will offer important new insights into the capacity of motion-triggered cameras for detecting differences in fox activity across sites.
Armed with all this new information, we can also refine José’s original power analysis to reflect the unique characteristics of each monitored malleefowl site. We’ll be working on ways to analyse data as they come in over the years, and new modules for the National Malleefowl Database to share what we learn with the malleefowl conservation community. We’re grateful that so many of its members are sharing their knowledge with us and entertaining the possibilities offered by this major collaborative project.
On the Easter weekend, I had the unexpected privilege of travelling to Japan to participate in a symposium at the University of Tokyo. Titled “Biological Conservation Planning under Uncertainties”, the symposium hosted Prof Mark Burgman as the guest of honour and the invitation extended to Anca Hanea and I.
Mark’s plenary presentation recounted a Sindh ibex conservation program that he was involved in a decade ago, and the role of uncertainty when estimating population viability. His approach highlighted the importance of casting the uncertainty in terms of the management objective, but ultimately revealed the human psychological biases that can interfere with quality modelling, prediction and decision-making. Anca went on to describe recent advances in the mathematics surrounding expert elicitation, such as aggregating and weighting various experts’ answers to the same question.
One of the day’s personal highlights was reconnecting with quantitative ecologist Hiroyuki Yokomizo. His optimal monitoring publications were very important to my PhD studies and though we have only met in person a couple of times, we have kept in contact over the years. At the symposium he spoke about optimal allocation of hunting effort to control sika deer browsing damage in the Chiba prefecture and I was struck by the similarities with my ongoing research regarding grazing pressure at Wyperfeld National Park. Hiroyuki’s population models and robust design approaches will again be helpful as I frame and solve my problem. Researcher Joung Hun Lee’s grazing models describing herder movement in a Mongolian rangeland were similarly inspiring, and I keenly scribbled down equations and exemplar graphs as she spoke.
Other presentations were more distant from my own research but no less interesting, addressing the very political Kuril harbor seal management, prioritising conservation of vascular plants and butterflies across Japan, and evaluating the effect of international trade on extinction risks. Many presentations highlighted the trade-offs between biodiversity and business objectives, and our need to elicit and articulate them well. I enjoyed the variety of quantitative approaches for addressing uncertainty. All participants kindly conducted their interactions in English, and the time spent in discussion was occasionally challenging and often enlightening.
I’m very grateful to Tadashi Miyashita, Hiroyuki Matsuda, Shota Nishijima and Mika Yasuda for their hospitality. It was wonderful to encounter people and projects outside of my usual research network, and to have an excuse to holiday in Japan during its gorgeous cherry blossom season.
Earlier this month the 5th National Malleefowl Forum was held in Dubbo, NSW. Mike Bode, Libby Rumpff, Rosanna van Hespen and I were there to represent the QAEco malleefowl research team. In fact, we made the most of this gathering of experts and enthusiasts by holding a small workshop to develop our malleefowl ecosystem models further. Mike has been translating the network structures formed during the project’s first workshop into literally millions of possible models with varying interaction strengths. In this second iteration we sought to refine this set of models with our experts using their knowledge of the mallee ecosystem.
Mike proposed activities that centred around completing worksheets and evaluating graphs, and I must admit I felt skeptical that we’d effectively capture the interest and knowledge of our participants in this way. I was proven completely wrong – look at ’em all working studiously in that top photo! We made time for talking too, of course, but this original exercise ensured that everybody – not just the loudest or most confident participants – made a major contribution. I think the other great feature of Mike’s approach was that it first invited participants to reject any proposed models that looked implausible, rather than requesting that they compose relationships from scratch. No-one was stuck staring at a blank page, and the rejection exercise built up some familiarity with the kind of model outputs we are interested in. Our experts were in precisely the right frame of mind to create their own graphs and identify any gaps in our work during the afternoon group sessions.
The Forum proper attracted over one hundred attendees from right across the country. Malleefowl are monitored nationally by volunteers, government agencies, mining companies, land holders, researchers and private consultants so the Forum is an important venue for communication across contexts. It’s a place to learn about malleefowl population trends across the country as well as conservation activities (such as captive breeding and feral animal control), technological developments (including LiDAR to detect mallefowl mounds and motion-sensing camera monitoring), Indigeneous knowledge and collaboration, and research findings (Taneal Cope’s genetic research and Jemima Connell’s fire modelling were highlights).
National co-ordinator Tim Burnard and malleefowl ecologist Joe Benshemesh cheekily summed up the Forum with a horrendogram that might have been inspired by our research team’s complicated ecosystem models. It did serve to highlight the diversity of skills, tools and institutions involved in malleefowl conservation across Australia – the Forum committee did well to capture them all into the same room at the same time.
Flying from Dubbo to Melbourne involves a stopover in Sydney, and I snuck in a couple of hours at the Art Gallery of New South Wales on my way home. Here I was delighted to discover Mallee in halflight by Pablo Byass among the finalists for the 2014 Wynne Prize. The artist wrote that he eventually developed a fondness for the mallee through his mother. I have to credit an entire community of committed and knowledgeable mallee and malleefowl enthusiasts for sharing this landscape with me.
At the end of the SDM workshop, I followed Sarah Converse back to the DMV area for a week of less structured work. Her job is based at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, a USGS research center set on a wildlife refuge near Laurel MD. I think of it as the intellectual epicentre of environmental structured decision making and ecological statistics in the U.S. In addition to catching up with Sarah and musing over facilitation styles, I met with Mike Runge and discussed the institutional structures for and professional challenges of engaging with real environmental decision makers and problems. Jim Nichols also spared me more than an hour to talk monitoring and survey design, a pet topic for both of us.
On Wednesday I took a train up to the University of Maryland, where former CEED ECR travellerElie Gurarie is now based. His interest in modelling animal movement and encounter rates intersects with Jos Moore‘s and my desire to understand weed search and detection. They’ve been working on new models of alpine willow detection and control, and Elie gave me the latest update. He and I also have an upcoming hawkweed detection project that we’re having fun planning.
Between all these meetings I had some welcome quiet time in the Patuxent library to catch up on my regular work commitments. I think I managed to tick off the most pressing ones before setting off on three weeks holiday….
My third travel week was spent at the National Conservation Training Center, the hub of professional development for the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Everything about the forested campus has been designed with sustainability in mind, and they’ve created an utterly immersive environment where you can lodge, eat, meet and think without distraction.
I attended their Structured Decision Making Workshop, one of an impressive suite of Decision Analysis programs offered regularly at the Center. This involves developing rapid decision-analytic prototypes for solving a real environmental management problem over five days. With Fred Johnson and Christina Romagosa, I co-coached a team of managers and researchers concerned with the spread of Burmese pythons through Florida’s Everglades (and eventually) to Loxahatchee refuge.
This is a role that demands constant thought and adaption – is everyone getting a say? have we really drilled down to the fundamental objective? what kind of model would best characterise this management problem? what activity can we next set the group to obtain the information we need? Luckily for us coaches, our team committed to the process, hatched some great ideas and made important contributions to our framing of the python invasion problem. Completing a full decision analysis will require extensive data collation, some thoughtful optimisations and simulations, and regular reality checks from our team of experts; Fred, Christina, Mathieu Bonneau and I are likely to stay on hand to see this project through.
On our last afternoon meeting as a group, team co-ordinator Rebekah Gibble presented each team member with a challenge coin as a token of appreciation from the Loxahatchee refuge staff. It’s a lovely keepsake that I’ll pin somewhere prominent in my office, and perhaps take out on occasion if I’m seeking a free drink.
My second stop was Fort Collins CO for the 2014 Adaptive Management Conference Series. This is a small, relatively informal gathering of USGS, FWS and academic scientists who work on adaptive management projects across the country. Speakers are offered 30-60 minute blocks to speak, allowing a rare opportunity to discuss issues in depth.
On Wednesday, Drew Tyre opened the conference with a neat set of rapidly-prototyped case studies, each calling for different styles of conflict resolution, expert elicitation and quantitative modeling. In the afternoon we heard a series of presentations about selecting surrogate species for broad-scale monitoring. This is a decision problem with a huge scope – involving vast areas, numerous stakeholders, and a dizzying array of alternatives – that will surely benefit from a structured approach.
On Thursday, presentations were centred around the classic application, adaptive harvest management. I learned a lot about how this program has expanded to various hunted species across the United States. Early career researchers Brian Gerber, Perry Williams and Adam Green presented the latest in statistical modelling, nuanced objective functions and optimisation approaches – I’ll be keeping an eye out for their publications. In the final session of the day, PhD student Noelle Hart stimulated a discussion comparing decision theoretic and resilience philosophies of adaptive management, another topic I want to read and think more about.
On Friday, Will Probert got us into some optimisation algorithms (yay!) for livestock disease management, Lianne Ball forecast challenges for wind farm conservation mitigation, and Jill Gannon presented one of the most advanced adaptive management programs I’ve ever been exposed to. They’ve not just closed the loop, but run around it four times! And they’ve developed some impressive systems for placing data management and analysis back into the hands of the project coordinators. Gannon’s report on native prairie adaptive management has shot straight to the top of my to-read list.
This is just the stuff to recharge my enthusiasm for adaptive management research (if it were ever waning!). I’m grateful to Bill Kendall and Cathy Cullinane Thomas for making it all happen in the face of delays and other obstacles.