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.
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 Model – Creating 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.
Figure 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.
Figure 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.