Monthly Archives: August 2013

SWAP 2015 Conceptual Models

By Junko Hoshi, Ph.D.

 Conceptual models are a conservation tool that graphically illustrates the basic functionality of a system. Building conceptual models begins with the situation analysis, which is simply gleaning and interpreting what is known about your interests. Our interests under SWAP 2015 are the conservation targets we have selected for the individual conservation unit. For example, the creosote desert scrub habitat type (Mojave-Sonoran Semi-Desert Scrub) is one of the Sonoran Desert Ecoregion targets as highlighted in Ecoregion Spotlight article in the current newsletter.

Scrutinizing target condition from various points of view allows us to establish a solid foundation crucial not only for the development of effective conservation strategies, but also for the successful implementation of the strategies to achieve their desired outcomes. This article discusses conceptual models in more detail and the role they play in the development of the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) 2015 Update.

Situation Analysis – Understanding where we stand
Beginning in March 2013, over 30 SWAP regional teams across the state gathered through a series of WebEx meetings and undertook the design of their regional action plans. There were two major parts in this process – the situation analysis of selected conservation targets and the actual development of conservation strategies for these targets.

Instead of skipping directly to list the stresses and threats impacting the selected targets, the individual teams initiated the situation analysis by identifying what the conservation targets desperately needed to survive and thrive. These fundamental factors called Key Ecological Attributes (KEAs) are the true drivers for the viability of the target. Conservation goals were then elaborated to directly address the enhancement of the KEAs.

The situation analysis evolved around the evaluation of KEA viability by associating measurable indicators to each KEA and ranking their relative values based on current status and future desired condition. The diagram below (Figure 1) is an example from the draft strategy for the Klamath Mountains Ecoregion in Northern California. The five KEAs selected for their target, Western North America Wet Meadow and Low Shrub Carr, and indicated by the green keys, are: 1) area and extent, 2) fire regime, 3) successional dynamics, 4) community structure or composition, and 5) hydrologic regime.

Klamath Region KEAs

Figure 1:   Example of KEAs from the Klamath Ecoregion (strategies still in progress). The target vegetation is the Western North America Wet Meadow and Low Shrub Carr. Five KEAs for this macrogroup are indicated in the green key icons. The purple triangles are the associated indicators and their rankings are detailed on the right side of the table.

Stresses are degraded ecological conditions found in the target habitat. Following inspection of the KEA status and analyzing where and to what degree degradation may be occurring, stresses to the target were framed as the compromised conditions of the KEAs. Threats to the target, typically resulting from human activities, were phrased on the other hand as direct causes of KEA degradation. These two factors – stresses and threats – were ranked together to weigh their overall severity. The teams went further back to trace the root causes of the threats to address not only the environmental context in their analysis, but also the socio-economical background where these human activities occur. These activities are the hidden influences to the status of the KEAs, and thus to the targets.

Conceptual ModelCreating our common ground
Conceptual models in general present a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relationships among variables using a set of interrelated constructs, definitions, propositions, and assumptions. In the context of the SWAP regional process, these variables consist of the critical elements identified through the situation analysis described above, namely the target, stresses, threats, and other contributing factors including the socioeconomic factors of the target.

Conceptual models are meant to illustrate the underlying mechanism of a complex system by symbolizing the system in a comprehensible form and are often represented in a diagram (Figure 2). The interactions between the variables (bubbles) are diagrammatically linked by arrows, illustrating the cause and effect relationships among these factors or variables, and the dynamics of the target system.

Concept Model Klamath Figure 2Figure 2:   Conceptual Model from Klamath Mountain Ecoregion. The orange boxes with magenta font are the identified stressed to the target. The four pink boxes indicate the major threat to the system and two orange ones on the left side in the middle reveals the socio-economic context where those threats arise from. After completing the situational analysis, we have added seven strategies to intervene the current dynamic of the target system. Here the overall approach in the conservation action is to improve the health of the target by threat reductions as all the strategies are pointed to the threats.

As simple as it seems, the actual creation of a conceptual model requires in-depth knowledge about the system. In most cases, the situation analysis reveals gaps, often significant, in the knowledge about the target or understanding of the dynamics of the target system. As an example from the conceptual model above, the fire regime (system driver addressed under the threat), invasive plants (another threat), and climate changes (stresses directly affecting the target) all potentially influence the groundwater level (KEA) in wet meadow habitats (target). But the synergetic impact of these factors to the groundwater is not easy to quantify, nor are the impacts to the target.

Completing a conceptual model turns out not to be merely a task to organize scientific information, but truly an act of art involving interpretation and prioritization of available scientific information. This is because of potential uncertainties originating from these knowledge gaps, as well as the desire to present the diagram in the simplest form while providing all the crucial information. As the regional teams went through the situation analysis and created these models, team members were forced to think, investigate, synthesize and select priorities based on their collective individual experiences of the target. If not entirely scientific, the major thought processes, together with the scientific information introduced during the discussions, were carefully documented in the Miradi files and in this sense, the situation analysis becomes at least repeatable.

 Searching for opportunities
With the conceptual models and other results from the situational analysis at hand, the regional teams shifted gears to launch into the second phase of strategy development: looking for the conservation opportunities.  Developing conservation strategies involves first identifying the purpose of the strategy, then describing a set of actions necessary to achieve these intentions. In a brainstorm mode, several scenarios were created that described how and where to intervene against threats, or how to directly enhance target conditions.

Tracing back the chains of the conceptual model to where a strategy would act upon a threat or stress, teams considered the implication of the proposed interventions to each factor, and the likely outcomes to the full system when the strategy is implemented. This stepwise process visited during the development of those strategies was recorded in Miradi as a set of “result chains” in which the assumed effects of the actions to the target system are visually condensed. Through this exercise, the most promising scenarios were selected as the proposed conservation strategies.

Result Chain Figure 3Figure 3:   A result chain was developed for every selected strategy. This one (still in draft form) is for the strategy “Habitat Restoration & Enhancement” addressed in the Figure 2. The first two blue boxes summarize the major outcome of the strategies articulated in the two objectives indicated on the yellow hexagon bubble. Achieving those two intermediate results by the strategy implementation, we expect to reduce the threat impact associated to the conifer encroachment due to the fire suppression as indicated in the pink box. Multiple benefits to the KEAs are shown in the blue boxes stuck in pillar. Notes that this result chain is our futuristic view of the system and correlated well with the associated chain in the conceptual model in Figure 2, where the current understanding of the dynamic relating the fire regime are expressed. [Note: The conceptual model (Figure 2) was updated recently but the result chain above was created from an older version – so they are not perfectly synchronized here.]

The major projected consequences identified in the result chains were then expanded into a set of regional SWAP conservation goals and objectives. The goals focused on the direct enhancement of the target conditions by improving the associated measurable KEAs, while the objectives set major stepping points to layout pathways to eventually ameliorate the target conditions (Figure 3). Utilizing the situation analysis and the conceptual models, the teams were able to create goals and objectives that were Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound (SMART).

 Improving our understanding and conservation effectiveness
The original intent of developing SWAP was to present an overall wildlife conservation framework for the state, and to meet the requirement for receiving State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funding. Conceptual models and associated result chains are useful in conservation planning, but they themselves bestow a series of hypotheses made during the planning stages, and therefore are meant to be tested to validate or invalidate the assumptions. In this sense, these conceptual models, including the associated indicators and rankings, define the monitoring and adaptive management needs by establishing the baseline or starting point. This paves the way for programing evaluation tools to measure success. State Wildlife Grant (SWG) funding can be allocated to test these assumptions and the findings will help inform future management of the target.

 And the circle goes around
These conceptual diagrams are not static and indeed will evolve as the ecoregion teams actively manage them by including new learning and actual changes to the system. Over time, the gaps will be filled and the missing links will be added, the chains will be rewired, and the overall confidence level of the diagram will be improved. This will affect the overall rankings of key variables and should then layout a new baseline for the future management of the target.

Through those improvements, a series of conceptual models in different versions emerge, documenting the changing ecosystem and the surrounding conservation climate. The hope is that the cycle of adaptive management will actually form a spiral, taking the target ecosystem into a better place through the axis of time.

The process of developing conceptual models gave the ecoregion teams the opportunity to work together and articulate their current understanding of the target ecosystems. The produced conceptual models were then used to look for conservation opportunities. The result chains developed for each strategy forecasts the future synopsis of the target system after actions are implemented. Monitoring will allow the teams to confirm that these actions will trigger the predicted sequential improvement to the vital factors the targets require.

It is further expected that the conceptual models will offer a handy tool to present and communicate our conservation approach, providing a solid foundation to initiate and strengthen coordination and collaboration.  These models document the analysis and become a roadmap for navigating through the implementation. In addition, the presented conceptual models will become springboards to inspire and direct the future ecosystem studies that will eventually improve conservation performance through time.

All said, the question is: “Are our conceptual models good enough to guide our future conservation actions?”  A series of scoping meetings are planned this fall. The freshly made conceptual models will be displayed at these meetings. Come join us at our scoping meetings and let us know what you think.

Species Spotlight: Desert Tortoise

By Mike Giusti
Photos by Rebecca Jones and Magdelena Rodriguez

Desert Tortoise The Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), also known as the Agassiz’s desert tortoise, is the California state reptile and listed as a threatened species under the State and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Tortoises are found in the Sonoran, Mojave and Colorado Desert ecoregions.   The Colorado River serves as a natural genetic barrier between the Agassiz’s desert tortoise and the Morafka’s desert tortoise which is found in Arizona and Nevada.

Tortoises are a long lived species with a life expectancy of between 30 to 50 years or more.   Tortoises grow slowly and can take 16 years or longer to reach 8 inches in length.  The females reach sexual maturity at 15 to 20 years of age.  Mating occurs in the spring and autumn, with the female laying a clutch of 4 to 8 eggs, usually in the summer months of June and July.  The eggs will usually hatch in August or September.   Female tortoise may lay 0 to 3 clutches of eggs in a year and the incubation period of the eggs is 90 to 135 days depending on temperature.

Desert Tortoise 3Desert tortoises are adapted to living in areas in which ground temperatures can exceed 140oF (60oC).  Tortoise’s ability to dig underground burrows, where they spend as much as 95% of their time, allows them to escape the high desert temperatures.  Small tortoises will often modify other animal burrows so they can reduce their energy expenditure in digging a new burrow. Their inactivity while they are in burrows helps reduce water loss and regulate their body temperature.

Tortoises are most active during rainy seasons.  During the winter, tortoises go into a state of hibernation which helps them survive near freezing temperatures and survive during condition of low food availability. Tortoises will emerge from their burrows in early spring as the temperatures begin to warm and when new spring plant growth begin to emerge.    While tortoise will drink water from puddles, most of their fluid intake comes from grasses and spring flows.

Tortoise habitat is generally considered to be alluvial fans and washes where creosote desert scrub is often the dominant plant community.  Tortoises are known to exhibit strong site fidelity and can have well established home ranges of 10 to 100 acres in size.   Territories are selected based on their ability to provide food, water, and needed minerals. Tortoise populations have decreased by 90% since the 1950’s.  In the 1950’s, tortoise densities averaged 200 per square mile; currently they are estimated at 5 to 60 per square mile.

The desert tortoise is considered by most conservation experts to be an indicator species for desert habitats.  With its ability to survive in this harsh environment and long life span, tortoises often reflect how environmental changes are affecting the desert as well as other species.

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez Desert Tortoise

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez
Desert Tortoise

There are many threats to the tortoise and their habitats.  They face predatory threats from ravens, kit foxes, badgers, roadrunners and coyotes.  Ravens are known to prey heavily on hatchling and juvenile tortoises.  The small tortoises have soft shells and are therefore easy prey for ravens and other species.  Raven predation is particularly high near landfills and other areas with high human presence.  Also, ravens use power transmission poles as perch and nesting sites from which they hunt tortoises.

Human disturbance is also a direct threat to the desert tortoise and its habitat.  Off-road vehicles (ORV) can cause burrows to collapse and frequently tortoise are hit and killed by ORV’s.  The major threat to tortoise is the proposed renewable energy projects.  While efforts to avoid much of the known tortoise habitat are being made, there are projects being developed in close proximity of high quality habitat.  These projects attract additional predators and will likely disrupt movement patterns of resident tortoise.  Another threat is the potential for the spread of an upper respiratory disease from the release of captive tortoises into the wild.

Through the State Wildlife Action Plan, we are developing strategies to conserve existing tortoise habitat and will look to partner with other conservation agencies and organizations to minimize the impacts to the desert tortoise from renewable energy projects and urban development.  We are also looking forward to partnering with these organizations to advocate for siting of projects in locations where impacts to tortoises and other species will be avoided or in areas which are already converted or disturbed by other uses.

Ecoregion Spotlight: Sonoran Ecoregion

By Mike Giusti

 Sonoran Eco RegionThe Desert Province is comprised of six ecoregions, Colorado, Mono, Mojave, Southeastern Great Basin, Southern California Mountains and Valleys and the Sonoran.  This article is focusing on one of the smaller of these ecoregions, the Sonoran.  The Sonoran Ecoregion is located in southeastern California and is bordered on its eastern side by the Colorado River. The ecoregion extends approximately 60 miles to the north, south and west of Blythe.

Although not very large in size, this ecoregion supports a wide variety of habitats and species.  As described in the Manual of California Vegetation (MCV), there are twelve macrogroups or habitat types within the Sonoran ecoregion.  These are California Annual and Perennial Sonoran CWHR TypesGrasslands, Great Basin Saltbush Scrub, Inter-Mountain Dry Shrubland and Grassland, Mojave-Sonoran Semi-Desert Scrub, North American Pacific Coastal Salt Marsh, North American Warm Semi-Desert Cliff, Scree and Rock Vegetation, Southwestern North American Riparian Flooded and Swamp Forest, Warm Semi-Desert/Mediterranean Alkali-Saline Wetland, Western North American Freshwater Marsh, North American Warm-Desert Xero-Riparian, and Western North American Warm Temperate Ruderal Flooded & Swamp Forest.

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez Creosote desert scrub habitat

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez
Creosote desert scrub habitat

For the SWAP update, we focused on how three indicator species – desert tortoise, Mojave ground squirrel and Nelson’s desert bighorn sheep – use the different macrogroups or habitats, and how  these associations could help inform the selection of the target habitats for the Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran ecoregions.  For the Sonoran ecoregion, the target we selected was the Mojave-Sonoran Semi-Desert Scrub, commonly referred to as creosote desert scrub.  While this is the target for the Sonoran Ecoregion, our planning efforts are applicable to most of the other ecoregions in the Desert Province.

Likewise, targets selected for the Mojave ecoregion (alkali desert scrub) and the Colorado ecoregion (microphyll riparian woodland/desert wash) can be applied to the Mojave with minor modifications. The creosote desert scrub is an upland desert scrub found on hill slopes and alluvial fans throughout the arid Southwest where winter temperatures are not as cold as in the Great Basin Desert and summer temperatures are very hot.  The Mojave has frost and occasional winter snows whereas the Sonoran rarely has any frost. Also, the warmer Sonoran desert tends to have more summer rain, and more distinctive emergent arborescent species, such as saguaro, and ocotillo; the Mojave is cooler with fewer large cacti and large thorny trees,  and hosts species including the prominent Joshua trees and other Yucca species.

Creosotebush (Larrea tridentata) characterizes this macrogroup as the name indicates. Ocotillo, Joshua-tree, saguaro are also diagnostic species of the macrogroup, but are localized within the distribution of the macrogroup forming a sub-classification in the MCV hierarchy.  Other widespread diagnostic shrubs include brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), and Burrobush (Ambrosia dumosa), among many others.   The perennial desert grasses such as big galletta (Pleuraphis rigida), and desert needle grass (Stipa speciosa) also are considered part of this macrogroup.

There are several Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) associated with the Sonoran Ecoregion and the Desert Province.  In addition to the desert tortoise, Mojave ground squirrel and bighorn sheep there are Large-billed savannah sparrow, Couch’s spadefoot, tricolored blackbird, short-eared owl, long-eared owl, burrowing owl, Swainson’s hawk, northern harrier, yellow warbler, willow flycatcher, loggerhead shrike, vermillion flycatcher, least Bell’s vireo, pronghorn antelope, pallid bat, western mastiff bat, California leaf-nosed bat, Mojave River vole, American badger, red diamond rattlesnake, flat-tail horned lizard, California legless lizard, Mojave fringe-toed lizard, golden eagles and Gila monsters.  Although the gila monster is very rare, they are occasionally found in the California desert.

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez Desert Tortoise

Photo credit: Magdelena Rodriguez
Desert Tortoise

The creosote desert scrub macrogroup is usually found mixed with other habitat types although it may appear they are in distinct areas.   The soils are such that they provide suitable burrowing habitat for desert tortoise and Mojave ground squirrels and with adequate rainfall, they can develop lush vegetation that supports many of the other species.  Even the dry grasses during the summer can provide valuable nutrition for many of the species.

Photo credit: Phil Leitner Mojave Ground Squirrel

Photo credit: Phil Leitner
Mojave Ground Squirrel

There are several major threats that can affect the Mojave-Sonoran Semi-Desert Scrub   macrogroup. The use of off-road vehicles is a significant issue.  However, the biggest threat to the habitat is renewable energy.  While there are many benefits from renewable energy as an adaptation strategy for reducing green-house gases and therefore favorable for reducing the effects of climate change, the loss of tens of thousands of acres of habitat will alter the landscape of the Sonoran Ecoregion and could significantly affect the SGCN’s occurring here, many of which are endemic to the province.

Photo credit: Milo Rivera Bighorn Sheep

Photo credit: Milo Rivera
Bighorn Sheep

In addition to removal of habitat, there is a high likelihood that the loss of connectivity would result in disruption of gene flow for many species. Desert vegetation is also known for its slow recovery after disturbance often taking 100 years or more to recover the structure, function and composition present pre-disturbance. Consequently, the impacts from the loss of habitat due to rapid development of renewable energy are expected to be multifaceted and long lasting.

Under SWAP 2015, three main strategies were developed to address the potential impacts resulting from development of renewable energy in the desert province. These strategies propose developing a regional conservation strategy, establishing co-management partnership for monitoring, management and advocacy for resource conservation, and providing training for department staff, other resource management agencies staff and stakeholders on best practices for designing renewable energy projects in ways that minimize potential impacts while enhancing the overall viability of the ecological health in the desert ecoregion.

Open Standards Step 3: Implement Actions and Monitoring

Based on the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, version 3, April 2013

As mentioned in previous issues, SWAP 2015 Update is using the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation developed by the Conservation Measure Partnership as its planning approach. The June issue introduced readers to the five step process and explored Step 1: Conceptualize.  The July issue discussed Step 2: Plan Actions and Monitoring.

SWAP Cycle

SWAP Cycle

The series continues with an overview of Step 3: Implement Actions and Monitoring. The authors of Open Standards consider this as the most important step in the entire adaptive management cycle process. This step puts all of the planning efforts conducted in the previous steps into action. It involves developing and implementing specific work plans while ensuring sufficient resources, capacity, and partners. This step includes:

Developing a Detailed Short-Term Work Plan and Timeline
In the previous steps of the project cycle, general action, monitoring, and operational plans were developed. Ordinarily, in this phase of the cycle, these general plans would be further developed into more specific plans – and then implemented on an ongoing basis. Because these plans were developed as part of a larger, more comprehensive statewide action plan that will not be implemented until 2015, the SWAP 2015 Update will contain a placeholder for this step, pending a regional decision to move forward with implementation. At that time, a specific short-term work plan covering the first six months (or at most a year-and-a-half) will be developed. This work plan will use overall actions, monitoring, and operational plans to specify in much greater detail:

  • What specific activities and tasks are required to complete each planned strategy, monitoring step, or operational function,
  • Who will be responsible and who will be accountable for completing each activity and task,
  • When will each task be undertaken and what will be the sequence of linked activities and tasks, and
  • How much money and other resources will be needed to complete each activity and task.

The detailed work plans will provide the basis for developing a project timeline or calendar. In some situations, the work plan will not only specify tasks and responsibilities, it will also record in a calendar format when these tasks will happen. The work plan will also help identify needed staff resources. This information is important for developing the project budget.

Developing the Project Budget
Once the tasks and activities have been identified, the necessary resources needed to implement the project can be determined. Analysis of the operational plan developed in Step 2, the strategic plan and the work plan will assist with the development of a more refined estimate of costs for specific activities and tasks and the broader strategies into which those tasks feed.

Since the work plan is short-term in nature, some informed estimates projecting potential costs over the life of the project will have to be made. Because there is often a long lead time to fund projects, the project budget should be developed as soon as feasibly possible. For many projects, the most expensive resource need will be staff time. Other major expenses to consider are capital expenditures and logistical support that the project might need, ranging from monitoring and management expenses, to administrative or logistical support. Once the project budget has been developed, potential funding sources need to be identified.

Implement Strategic and Work Plans
The next and most important part of Step 3 is to implement the strategic plan and the more detailed work plan according to schedule and within budget. This includes implementing both the actions and the monitoring.