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Addressing complexity and uncertainty: conceptual models and expert judgments applied to migratory birds in the oil sands of Canada

Marc A Nelitz, ESSA Technologies Ltd.
Ben Beardmore, Beardmore Consulting LLC; Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Craig S Machtans, Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada
Alexander W Hall, ESSA Technologies Ltd.
Chris Wedeles, ArborVitae Environmental Services Ltd.


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Complexity and uncertainty are inherent in social-ecological systems. Although they can create challenges for scientists and decision makers, they cannot be a reason for delaying decision making. Two strategies have matured in recent decades to address these challenges. Systems thinking, as embodied by conceptual modeling, is a holistic approach in which a system can be better understood by examining it as a whole. Expert elicitation represents a second strategy that enables a greater diversity of inputs to understand complex systems. We explored the use of conceptual models and expert judgments to inform expansion of monitoring around oil sands development in northern Alberta, Canada, particularly related to migratory forest birds. This study area is a complex social-ecological system for which there is an abundance of specific information, but a relatively weak understanding about system behavior. Multiple conceptual models were developed to represent complexity and provide a more fulsome view of influences across the landscape. A hierarchical approach proved useful, and a mechanistic structure of the models clarified the cumulative and interactive nature of factors within and outside the study area. To address gaps in understanding, expert judgments were integrated using a series of structured exercises to derive “weightings” of importance of different components in the conceptual models, specifically pairwise comparisons, Likert scaling, and a maximum difference conjoint approach. These exercises were helpful for discriminating the importance of different influences and illuminating the competing beliefs of experts. Various supporting tools helped us engage a group of experts from across North America, which included a virtual meeting, online polling, desktop sharing, web survey, and financial incentive. This combination of techniques was innovative and proved useful for addressing complexity and uncertainty in a specific natural resource management setting, which can be informative for others facing similar challenges.

Key words

complexity; conceptual modeling; expert judgment; migratory birds; oil sands; uncertainty

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087