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Tools That Support Conservation Decisions

Unlocking the Data

Leo Salas, PhD


Science-based conservation is a large concept, one that connotes many things. For PRBO’s Climate Change and Informatics Group, it involves developing interactive, web-based decision support tools. These innovative tools, which planners and managers access online, are derived from scientific data and designed to help improve conservation outcomes. Natural resource managers using our San Francisco Bay Sea Level Rise tool, for example, can see where critical habitat exists today and where it may occur in the future.

Creating a decision support tool requires many talents and skills and is truly a team effort. We start with a conservation question such as “How can we best protect tidal marsh birds and their habitats in San Francisco Bay in the face of sea level rise and increasingly extreme storms?” We also identify some associated decisions that could benefit from scientific information.
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PRBO has the ability to quickly synthesize information that can help answer the question. Often, the data we need—on birds, vegetation, climate projections, landscape patterns, and more—are already housed in PRBO’s California Avian Data Center (CADC).

(Explore the Sea Level Rise tool, featured in this article, at www.prbo.org/sfbslr!)

Equipped with the knowledge at hand, we conduct analyses to figure out what factors affect the detection, presence, and abundance of birds in an area, and to predict their presence there into the future. We consider several future scenarios, assess our own conclusions, and identify important gaps in our knowledge. This often leads to scientific publication and the benefits of strong peer-review of our approach and results.

Then, for ease of access by managers and decision-makers, we provide decision-support materials in the form of web contents. These are “living” tools, intentionally designed to be part of a learning process: as our knowledge advances, we update the tools to provide the best possible support.

We want our decision support tools to be both useful and used, sometimes for multiple, related questions. With the San Francisco Bay tool, for example, managers and planners might prioritize investments in restoring marshes throughout the Bay under a range of assumptions about sea level rise. They also might evaluate how to ensure that a particular marsh they are currently managing will continue to fulfill its conservation potential.

In our rapidly changing world, the strengths of PRBO’s science-based conservation approach will doubtless continue to be in demand into the future.