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Protocol and Practice in the Adaptive Management of Waterfowl Harvests

Fred Johnson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Ken Williams

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Abstract

Waterfowl harvest management in North America, for all its success, historically has had several shortcomings, including a lack of well-defined objectives, a failure to account for uncertain management outcomes, and inefficient use of harvest regulations to understand the effects of management. To address these and other concerns, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began implementation of adaptive harvest management in 1995. Harvest policies are now developed using a Markov decision process in which there is an explicit accounting for uncontrolled environmental variation, partial controllability of harvest, and structural uncertainty in waterfowl population dynamics. Current policies are passively adaptive, in the sense that any reduction in structural uncertainty is an unplanned by-product of the regulatory process. A generalization of the Markov decision process permits the calculation of optimal actively adaptive policies, but it is not yet clear how state-specific harvest actions differ between passive and active approaches. The Markov decision process also provides managers the ability to explore optimal levels of aggregation or "management scale" for regulating harvests in a system that exhibits high temporal, spatial, and organizational variability. Progress in institutionalizing adaptive harvest management has been remarkable, but some managers still perceive the process as a panacea, while failing to appreciate the challenges presented by this more explicit and methodical approach to harvest regulation. Technical hurdles include the need to develop better linkages between population processes and the dynamics of landscapes, and to model the dynamics of structural uncertainty in a more comprehensive fashion. From an institutional perspective, agreement on how to value and allocate harvests continues to be elusive, and there is some evidence that waterfowl managers have overestimated the importance of achievement-oriented factors in setting hunting regulations. Indeed, it is these unresolved value judgements, and the lack of an effective structure for organizing debate, that present the greatest threat to adaptive harvest management as a viable means for coping with management uncertainty.

Key words

adaptive management, harvest, hunting regulations, Markov decision process, migratory birds, optimization, uncertainty, waterfowl.
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087