Adaptive Management

ESSA began in 1979, building on ideas developed at the University of British Columbia about how to creatively apply science and systems thinking to help people tackle complex environmental and social problems.

Ecosystems and social systems are complex, and always changing. We often don’t know how ecosystems and species will respond to human activities.  As a result, environmental managers commonly face uncertainty about which actions will be most effective in meeting resource management objectives. Adaptive Management (AM) can provide a clear path forward. 

AM is systematic, practical approach for improving resource management policies and practices. It provides a structured process for learning which management actions best meet management objectives, and for reducing resource management uncertainty. In its most effective form, an experimental approach is used to test clearly formulated hypotheses about important, but uncertain, components of a system.  Effective AM requires considerable effort, planning and rigor. It is much more than simply monitoring and responding to observed outcomes (although these are important aspects of AM). Table x lists what underlies these steps an ideal application of AM.  

Adaptive Management has been the cornerstone of ESSA’s approach since our inception in 1979, and informs the mindset we bring to all of our projects. We have developed AM plans across a wide range of situations and sectors including endangered species recovery, habitat and ecosystem restoration, fisheries and water management, and management of industrial emissions and mining effluent. 

AM should be part of any toolbox used by managers, regulators and stakeholders to resolve difficult problems. AM can be helpful in any of the following situations: 

  • You are having difficulty deciding how best to achieve management or restoration objectives? Or deciding among alternative management actions 
  • Stakeholders disagree about which are the most effective management actions for achieving stated objectives 
  • You are uncertain about the environmental outcomes of some of your management practices, ecological restoration activities, facility operations, or mitigations 
  • You are a regulator faced with making decisions despite uncertainty about the environmental outcomes, and are unsure about what conditions to place on certificates, licenses or permits 

Our work in this space encompasses:

  • Expert advice on adaptive management across the AM cycle 
  • Independent review of AM plans 
  • Developing and implementing AM plans 
  • Quantitative decision analysis of alternative actions 
  • Screening uncertainties to identify the  most  critical questions 
  • Translating critical questions into testable hypotheses 
  • Detailed spatial monitoring design 
  • Design of data analysis and evaluation approaches 
  • Workshops with managers, scientists and stakeholders 
  • Technical and non-technical reporting and communication 
  • Tailored training sessions on AM best-practice 
  • AM policy guidance

If you want to learn more about AM, contact Carol Murray ( or Marc Neltiz ( 

  • Murray, C.L., D. Marmorek and L. Greig. 2015. Adaptive Management Today: A Practitioners’ Perspective. Chapter 10, in: Adaptive Management of Social-Ecological Systems. Allen, C., A. Garmestani and C. Smith (Eds.). Springer. * 
  • Adaptive Management: A Spoonful of Rigour Helps the Uncertainty Go Down. Presented in 2004 by C. Murray at the 16th International Annual Meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration in Victoria, British Columbia. 
  • Adaptive Management: A Science-Based Approach to Managing Ecosystems in the Face of Uncertainty. Presented in 2003 by C. Murray at the 5th International Conference on Science and Management of Protected Areas: Making Ecosystem Based Management Work, in Victoria, BC. 
  • Greig, L. A., D. R. Marmorek, C. Murray and D. C. E. Robinson. 2013. Insight into Enabling Adaptive Management. Ecology and Society 18 (3): 24 [online]. 
  • Murray, C., C. Smith and D. Marmorek. 2011. Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program Adaptive Management Plan Version 1. Prepared by ESSA (Vancouver, BC) and Headwaters Corporation (Kearney, NE) for the Middle Rio Grande Endangered Species Collaborative Program, Albuquerque, New Mexico. 
  • Alexander, C.A.D., C.N. Peters, D.R. Marmorek and P. Higgins. 2006. A decision analysis of flow management experiments for Columbia River mountain whitefish management. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 63: 1142-1156. 
  • Murray, C. and D. Marmorek. 2003. Adaptive Management and Ecological Restoration. Chapter 24, in: Freiderici, P. (ed.). 2003. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests. Island Press (Washington, Covelo CA, London). * 
  • Jones, M. and L. Greig. 1985. Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management: A New Approach to Environmental Impact Assessment.  Pages 21-42, in: V.W. MacLaren and J.B. Whitney (eds.) New Directions in EIA in Canada. Methuen Publications, Toronto, Ontario. * 
  •  What it really takes to test hypotheses concerning ecosystem restoration and species recovery. Presented by D. Marmorek at the 2014 Conference on Ecological and Ecosystem Restoration in New Orleans, Louisiana. 
  • Putting the M&E back into Adaptive Management. Introductory presentation by D. Marmorek at a symposium he organized and chaired on Rigorous Adaptive Management for Approaches to Benefit Fish Populations and Aquatic Ecosystems, as part of the 2011 American Fisheries Society conference in Seattle, Washington. 
  • What determines whether or not adaptive management programs affect management and policy decisions? Presented by D. Marmorek in 2011 at the 4th National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration in Baltimore, Maryland. 
  • True versus Pretend Adaptive Management. Presented by D. Marmorek in 2007 at the 2nd National Conference on Ecosystem Restoration in Kansas City, Missouri. 
  • Integration – the holy grail of Columbia Basin monitoring and evaluation. Challenges, examples and lessons learned from the Collaborative Systemwide Monitoring and Evaluation Project. Presented in 2008 by D. Marmorek at the American Fisheries Society Western Division Meeting, Portland, Oregon.