Planning Approach – Open Standards

In order to achieve conservation goals, it is important to determine the extent to which actions are working – and be able to diagnose why some succeed while others do not. The SWAP 2015 Update will use an adaptive management approach that will allow CDFW to systematically plan their conservation strategies, and then determine if their strategies are on track and what adjustments need to be made to achieve their goals.

The intention of developing conservation strategies is to identify and implement conservation actions directed at specific threats and stressers that will benefit the greatest number of Species with the Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) within an ecoregion, watershed or marine study area. More information on SGCN can be found in the SGCN article in this newsletter.

The planning approach selected by CDFW is the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation developed by the Conservation Measure Partnership. The Open Standards is a widely accepted conservation planning framework that brings together common concepts, approaches, and terminology in conservation project design, management, and monitoring in order to help practitioners improve the practice of conservation.

The five steps that comprise the project management cycle are: 1) Conceptualizing the project vision and context; 2) Planning actions and planning monitoring; 3) Implementing actions and implementing monitoring; 4) Analyzing data, using the results, and adapting the project; and 5) Capturing and sharing learning.

SWAP Cycle

SWAP Cycle

This article will explore the process to Conceptualize the project vision and context (step 1 of the Open Standards project management cycle). Future articles will provide additional details of steps 2 – 5.

First, the scope of the Update is the State of California; and the project team is composed of selected CDFW staff. The vision for the 2015 Update is:

Through the California State Wildlife Action Plan, the Department of Fish and Wildlife seeks to conserve the resources in the nation’s most biologically diverse state. We seek to create a flexible but scientific process to respond to changing challenges, including population growth, the need for renewable energy, and global climate change. The Department seeks to make best use of limited resources while developing lasting partnerships and increasing public participation in the conservation and management of California’s valued natural resources.

Foothills Ecoregion

The next step is to define the geographic planning areas for the Update. CDFW started with USDA’s 19 ecological sections of California and added 16 watersheds and 5 Marine Study Areas (collectively called ecoregions), plus the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecoregion.  An example of an ecoregion is the Sierra Nevada Foothill Ecoregion. Within each ecoregion, CDFW identified the vegetative communities that occur there using the Nation Vegetation Classification. This classification was adapted for California and described in the Manual of California Vegetation ( The manual contains a hierarchy of vegetative associations.

foothill landscape

Oak Woodland. Photo Credit: CalPhotos. 2012. Regents of the University of California, Berkeley. Accessed on June 17, 2013

CDFW selected a level in the hierarchy that most closely matches the scale most commonly used for describing habitats. This was the “macrogroup level.” Macrogroups are specific vegetative assemblages that make up habitats, or ecological systems that represent and encompass the full suite of biodiversity within the planning area. Species can be grouped into one habitat if they occur on the same landscape, require similar ecological processes, have similar viability, and have similar threats. An example of a macrogroup in the Sierra Nevada Foothill Ecoregion is California Forest and Woodland – which is a fancy, albeit scientific way of saying “Oak Woodland.”

Macrogroups are the basic unit for development and selection of conservation actions. The assumption is that if the habitat and ecosystem is protected and managed, species that live there will be conserved. While an ecoregion has multiple macrogroups, CDFW is focusing on 1 – 3 priority macrogroups in each ecoregion to develop conservation strategies for the Update.

To develop a conservation strategy, it is important to first identify the environmental stresses affecting the habitat and ecosystems. Stresses are degraded ecological conditions found in the macrogroup. Stresses might include loss of habitat, altered fire regime, and altered landscape connectivity, to name a few. Identifying the stresses provides greater ecological understanding of how a threat impacts the habitat – and helps in the analysis to determine the degree to which the effects of a threat might be mitigated.

The next step is to identify the direct threats that influence a habitat. Direct threats are primarily human activities that immediately affect a target. Some common examples include urban development, fire management practices, invasive species, dams and dam management including water diversions, and transportation corridors.

Understanding the how stresses interact with threats to impact a species is the basis for developing actions to ameliorate the impact. For example, native trout are dependent on specific habitat conditions in a stream. Trout could be impacted by altered river flow due to reduced snowpack as a result of climate change, and further impacted by dam operations and low dissolved oxygen due to invasive species. Conservation strategies can be developed to reduce the impacts and restore the habitat.

Threats-DiagramOnce stresses, threats and a habitat’s vulnerability to climate change are identified, a conceptual model is developed that identifies linkages and interactions within a habitat or macrogroup. A very simple conceptual model is shown to the left. The conceptual model presents a picture of the situation within an ecoregion.

Conceptual models also allow scientists to develop potential conservation strategies in Step 2 of the Open Standards process. Strategies are a group of actions with a common focus that work together to reduce threats, capitalize on opportunities, or restore natural systems.

The tremendous amount of information being developed by the ecoregion teams is being input into the Miradi Adaptive Management Software Program (Miradi). Miradi walks staff through the conceptualization and planning steps (Steps 1 and 2) in the adaptive management cycle. The information will then be used to compare information across the state and region, and then aggregate and report it in various forms to interested audiences and users.