Application of Threshold Concepts in Natural Resource Decision Making

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Thresholds for Conservation and Management: Structured Decision Making as a Conceptual Framework

  • James D. NicholsAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey, Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Email author 
  • , Mitchell J. EatonAffiliated withSoutheast Climate Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
  • , Julien MartinAffiliated withFlorida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Fish and Wildlife Research Institute

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A conceptual framework is provided for considering the threshold concept in natural resource management and conservation. We define three kinds of thresholds relevant to management and conservation. Ecological thresholds are values of system state variables at which small changes bring about substantial or specified changes in system dynamics. They are frequently incorporated into ecological models used to project system responses to management actions. Utility thresholds are components of management objectives and are values of state or performance variables at which small changes yield substantial changes in the value of the management outcome. Decision thresholds are values of system state variables at which small changes prompt changes in management actions in order to reach specified management objectives. Decision thresholds are derived from the other components of the decision process. We advocate a structured decision making (SDM) approach within which the following components are identified: objectives (possibly including utility thresholds), potential actions, models (possibly including ecological thresholds), monitoring program, and a solution algorithm (which produces decision thresholds). Adaptive resource management (ARM) is described as a special case of SDM developed for recurrent decision problems that are characterized by uncertainty. We believe that SDM, in general, and ARM, in particular, provide good approaches to conservation and management. Use of SDM and ARM also clarifies the distinct roles of ecological thresholds, utility thresholds, and decision thresholds in informed decision processes.


Adaptive management Decision threshold Ecological threshold Structured decision making Utility threshold