From Adaptive to Precision Ecology

 
YERC techs (from left) Gareth Dahlgren, Spencer Link, and Augie Schield use in-house water analysis equipment we are testing as we develop  RiverNET , a novel application of recent technology to address an emerging informational need.

YERC techs (from left) Gareth Dahlgren, Spencer Link, and Augie Schield use in-house water analysis equipment we are testing as we develop RiverNET, a novel application of recent technology to address an emerging informational need.

From basic research to implementation of solutions, YERC has developed an Adaptive Ecology approach whereby humans learn how to best adapt to maintaining and recovering the ecosystems they continually disrupt and impact. Ecosystems themselves self-adapt largely thru the natural law of interdependence where density-dependent compensations occur within populations and between species and trophic levels. These mechanisms underpin their resiliency by allowing ecological systems to self-regulate, defying the third law of thermodynamics. Can humankind also learn how to augment these natural self-organizing properties leading to a more balanced and equilibrated healthy state? The millennium ecosystem assessment chronicled the growing degradation of Earth’s ecosystems from direct impacts—natural resource extraction—and indirect human impacts—climate variability and warming from greenhouse gas emissions that drive an increasing frequency  and severity of disturbance events.

If we can’t understand how ecosystems work, then we can’t adapt to help them. But you can’t understand how ecosystems work unless you engage in long-term research and monitoring at large ecosystem scales. And that’s what YERC has done over its 25-year history (e.g., large carnivores-prey in Yellowstone, Isle Royale wolf-moose, lynx-snowshoe hare, etc.) by focusing on long-term research and monitoring at large spatial scales. This approach underpins our Adaptive Ecology philosophy:  We must adapt in order to maintain the health of the ecosystems we rely upon.

This science of understanding of how ecosystems work—based on a quasi-experimentation where we learn how to adapt based on lessons learned from natural and policy experiments—has led to what we call Precision Ecology: where we craft solutions based on diagnostics and prognosis—similar to human medicine. To do this we are designing technology-enabled monitoring programs that drive decision-making. This requires sustained funding to capture spatial and temporal variability through diagnostic analysis and building predictive models that optimize these solutions. Often environmental problems come with funding. If not, then we need to identify the economic relevance of the problem and forge win-win solutions that provides sustained funding where agency resources are insufficient.  Without adherence to a sustained funding ethic, we won’t be able to further the understanding needed as climate and human activity impacts continue to alter ecosystems. How they respond—either stay resilient or degrade) are invaluable lessons that defines how we craft Precision Ecology. You see, Precision Ecology must provide a continuous stream of diagnostics (monitoring) that identifies how ecosystems adapt or not to impacts.

That’s how we put ecosystem science to work to solve societies and nature’s most pressing issues simultaneously. It takes a seamless and cyclic iterative interaction between Adaptive and Prevision Ecology. They go hand-in-hand just like the mantra so well stated by Roger Pielke, Jr.: “What scientists and practitioners do should go hand-in-hand because they both measure success by their ability to predict the consequences of their actions”.

Bob Crabtree is YERC’s founder, executive director, and chief scientist