Using Conceptual Models and Expert Judgment to Inform Expansion of Monitoring of Migratory Birds in the Oil Sands
We developed a nested suite of conceptual models at multiple scales of effects pathways for biodiversity monitoring in the Oil Sands Areas, especially with respect to human impacts on migratory bird populations, at multiple scales from ecosystem to individual species.
|Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, N 56° 43′ 36”, W 111° 22′ 51”|
|2011 – 2013|
|Marc Nelitz, Alex Hall, and collaboratoes Chris Wedeles, Ben Beardmore|
|Technical Facilitation & Stakeholder Engagement, Ecological Modelling, GIS Analysis, Science Communication & Knowledge Synthesis|
The Problem We Aimed to Solve We Aim to Solve
We were asked to develop a nested suite of conceptual models of effects pathways for biodiversity monitoring in the Oil Sands Areas, especially with respect to human impacts on migratory bird populations, at multiple scales from ecosystem to individual species.
The conceptual models were intended to provide a foundation to the Terrestrial Biodiversity Monitoring Plan. In particular, the conceptual models would provide the basis for developing goals and objectives, clarifying appropriate monitoring questions, and identifying the parameters needed to evaluate those questions. Furthermore, they would provide the framework within which to assess the relative importance of key relationships and to select / prioritize targets, stressors, and their interactions for monitoring.
How We Helped
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.
Our Project’s Impacts
As part of the project we developed (1) a framework document that provides science-based guidance on the development of conceptual models to inform other biodiversity monitoring plans in the oil sands region; and (2) approximately 13 conceptual models specific to forest and wetland bird communities and the terrestrial ecosystem of the oil sands. The framework document and the higher-level, ecosystem- and landscape-based models are the foundational pieces of this project. These pieces set the stage for developing conceptual models for a variety of monitoring targets in the oil sands region and will be accessible to all interested stakeholders. The more narrowly focused, community- and species-specific models represent specific applications of the conceptual foundation. These models represent a nested hierarchy of scales, from a species- to a community- to a landscape- to an ecosystem-level understanding of the oil sands region. Models of different scales were needed to inform the relevant monitoring questions, which also change at different temporal and spatial scales. Moreover, the conceptual models have the ability to represent and communicate additional dimensionality associated with each effects pathway, and may include assignment of direction, strength of effect, uncertainty, predictability, and ecological and/or management importance of specific pathways.
This work has been published in Ecology & Society, under the title “Addressing complexity and uncertainty: conceptual models and expert judgments applied to migratory birds in the oil sands of Canada”