Findings on Research & Management Information Needs

Research/Management Categories and Priorities

The Core Group reorganized the framework list of managers' information needs into a taxonomy that would be useful to relate the needs of natural resource managers with distinct categories familiar to research funders and managers. The group developed the following list of categories of managers' research needs. The resource managers in the group assigned broad priorities to the categories using two considerations: urgency (short-term requirements) and importance (requirements related to issues with great potential impact). The rankings for each, with 1 signifying the highest priority and 3 the lowest, appear below.

Category of Information Need Urgency Importance
A. Fire 1 1
B. Inventory and Monitoring 1 1
C. Species Persistence/Demographics/Genetics 1 1
D. Administration, Socioeconomic Considerations, and Implementation 1 1
E. Exotics and Invasives 2 1
F. Public Use 2 1
G. Biophysical Processes/Ecosystem Function 3 1
H. Reserve Design/Biogeography/Landscape Processes 2 2
I. Restoration and Enhancement 2 2
J. General Species, Program-Wide, and Regional Concerns 3 2
K. Historical Land Use/Succession 3 2
L. Habitat Management Practices 3 2
M. Influence of Adjacent Land Uses 3 2

As with any list of priorities, those described above should be qualified. The categories of management information needs, the specific information needs, and the priorities assigned to them should be considered only in the context of the following qualifiers:

  1. They are the result of consensus generalizations by a diverse group. For specific sites or issues, priorities may vary.

  2. They represent a range of required research commitment. Some could be addressed by a single one-year study, while others could take decades.

  3. They are stated broadly so that they can be tailored to specific situations.

  4. The information needs and associated priorities will change over time as gaps are filled, needs refined, and new gaps identified.

Broad Research Gaps

Past and ongoing research partially addresses a small percentage of the managers' questions identified by the Core Group and others. Few, if any, managers' needs are fully addressed by current and planned research. For some of the broad areas listed above there are no research activities specifically related to the managers' needs.

Based on the priorities assigned to the categories of information needs and the lack of relevant research activities, the most significant information gaps are the following categories.

  • Inventory and Monitoring
  • Administration, Socioeconomic Considerations, and Implementation
  • Species Persistence/Demographics/Genetics
  • Fire

Appendix B contains a mapping of the ongoing research activities identified to the information needs elicited from managers. For each information need, relevant research activities are listed. Most of the information needs under the highest priority categories listed above are being addressed by none of the research projects listed (see pages B-2 through B-4). One of the fire questions is being addressed by several projects, but the remainder have only one activity that even partially addressed the need.

The next section summarizes the broad categories of information needs. Appendix A contains the complete list of managers' information needs identified to date under each of the 13 categories.

Managers' Information Needs

The Core Group produced a list of managers' information needs that can be addressed by research. This preliminary list will be revised and expanded through ongoing review. The list prepared by the Core Group is contained in Appendix A, and a list of current research activities is included in Appendix B. The research list is cross referenced to the information needs that each research activity could, at least in part, address. The following text describes the significance of each broad category of information need.

Most of the categories of information needs involve questions related to field management activities. However the category:Administration, Socioeconomic Considerations, and Implementation, is related to internal management.

A. Fire

For the last two decades, there has been a great deal of controversy among researchers regarding the frequency of occurrence of fire. This controversy involves those who feel that fires under natural conditions would have occurred with frequent regularity versus those who feel that fire was a more irregular event. Research to substantiate positions on either side has involved reproductive success in burned areas for Tecate Cypress and other chaparral plants. It has also involved the examination of ecosystems in northern Baja California where uncontrolled fire is theorized to occur with a more natural frequency than in Southern California. Judging from the research that has occurred, the ramifications of the management for the wrong frequency of occurrence of fire could be serious enough to significantly alter the vegetation that occurs in an area, including the elimination of key species of plants and animals. Since the habitats that will remain in preserve systems that result from the Natural Community Conservation Planning will be only a portion of the natural landscape that previously existed, there will be little room for error when planning for fire. Furthermore, with larger human populations adjacent to the preserve systems, there will be continually more opportunity for unnatural fire starts. In addition, as fires do start, there is a necessity for land and fire managers to decide when it is important to risk lives to stop the spread of a fire through a preserve area in order to save particular natural resources. Therefore, it is imperative to understand the response of individual species and vegetation communities to fire conditions, frequency as well as seasonal temporality, in order to manage preserve systems in a manner that will perpetuate the species.

B. Inventory and Monitoring

Land managers and planners are faced with difficult land use decisions over an increasingly limited resource base in southern California. Large investments have been made to support the reserve systems being established, and long-term management is anticipated to fulfill the expectations of the reserve network. Managers should be warned of significant changes in the environment at the earliest opportunity, when options for addressing the problems are greatest. Moreover, land managers should be equipped with information and tools to detect and interpret ongoing changes in coastal sage scrub, both positive (e.g., restoration activities) and negative (e.g., declining populations).

Well designed strategies could help managers distinguish unacceptable levels of change in the system--often anthropogenic--from inherent changes due to stochastic variation, successional changes following disturbance, and cyclical variation. Managers should be able to identify the vital signs of the ecosystem that will allow efficient means of detecting these significant kinds of change. Regional monitoring strategies should enable managers to identify thresholds of change that would, in turn, trigger a management response. Individual monitoring programs should be able to contribute to an understanding of conditions throughout the range of a species of an ecological community. All efforts should establish a feedback mechanism that will enable a genuine adaptive management program shared by all federal, state, local, and private management concerns in the NCCP planning area.

In addition, it is important to recognize that inventory and monitoring -- if thoughtfully designed and coordinated-- can provide the best possible means of obtaining data to address all of the major topics important to land managers. NCCP preserves are ideal opportunities for in situ hypothesis testing. Routine inventories and monitoring, supplemented with focused data collection of specific variables relevant to ecological processes and interactions, should be a cornerstone in the strategy to cost-effectively meet land managers' information needs.

C. Species Persistence/Demographics/Genetics

Individual species, particularly listed species and/or certain species deemed to be targets for natural community conservation efforts, continue to be focal issues for conservation programs. In order to manage for the long-term conservation of these species, managers need to understand the population demographics and ecological relationships of these species with their environment. This understanding applies to a given species and its ecological relationships at the landscape level, the intrinsic demographic variation of the species, and the genetic diversity among and within populations of the species. Depending on the species and its role in the conservation of a natural community, any of these issues may be relevant.

D. Administration, Socioeconomic Considerations, and Implementation

The Core Group identified several considerations to guide implementation of the framework list of information needs. Most of these relate to overall coordination of on-going and future research. Recognition of the need to enhance coordination among the many research efforts related to coastal ecosystems arises from two sources:

    (1) The desire--which the Group felt to be broadly held among the community of researchers and managers--to maximize the collection of valuable data, ensuring that field activities serve as many management-oriented research needs as feasibly possible; and

    (2) Regional management issues that require collation of geographically diverse data sets and some degree of macro-management of research.

These major concerns speak directly to an ever-present issue--the need to stretch management-supportive research budgets as far as possible to benefit coastal sage scrub management throughout southern California. Rather than introduce an additional layer of bureaucratic difficulties, the role of research coordination at the regional scale is conceived of as a means of seeking out opportunities to maximize efficiency of multiple, simultaneous research efforts. The key administrative information needs are described below.

  1. There is a need to establish and maintain a regularly updated data base of information valuable to preserve managers. The data base should include major findings from past, ongoing, and future studies on the management-oriented topics identified in this framework. Information should be presented in a format that is user-friendly to managers. It should: 1) present findings on relevant topics, 2) assess the information (e.g., its applicability to one or more geographic subregions, and the relative certainty of its findings), 3) cross-reference similar studies and their findings, 4) synthesize findings with other findings, and 5) refer to other ongoing or planned research in the subject area. Findings should be presented in a manner that facilitates their application to making and implementing management decisions. The data base should include reference maps, ideally in GIS format, that identify research study sites, planning areas, and areas managed by specific entities, to facilitate coordination among managers and interpretation of research results. Maintenance of the data base should include mechanisms to update incorporate feedback frequently from managers on the applicability of research results.

  2. In addition to management needs, the body of information generated by research should be made readily available to inform decisions related to preserve planning and establishment. This may require additional formatting or organization of the data base to facilitate extraction of information useful to front-end planning and preserve design.

  3. The benefits of research should be synthesized, to the degree possible, to guide the decisions of managers and planners. Many questions posed by managers do not necessarily require new research but can be addressed by a synthesis of existing information. Synthesized information should inform an ongoing process of analysis that seeks to establish criteria for successful habitat management through interactive dialogue among researchers, managers, and administrators.

E. Exotic Plant and Animal Species, Invasives, and Other Problem Species

Invasive exotic plant and animal species pose threats to the ecological integrity of natural reserves. Within the NCCP reserve there are large areas dominated by black mustard, globe artichoke, non-native grasses, and other exotic plant species. Over seventeen percent of the California flora is comprised of non-native species, and within the coastal sage scrub community many stands are composed of over a third introduced taxa. In wetlands exotic presence often exceeds that of upland communities, ranging to above fifty percent non-native plant species, though not all are ecologically problematic.

Among the research challenges with non-native plants in the reserve are questions such as:

  • Can communities created through restoration or mitigation actions resist and reverse the presence of exotics in heavily infested sites?
  • Can existing stands be "recovered" to sustainable, non-deteriorating patches?
  • What is the role of nutrient alteration in changing the competitive interactions and colonization rates of exotic and native plant species?
  • What is the role of parasites, pathogens, nematodes, and other soil invertebrates on the population biology of specific plant and animal species?
Some exotic species compete for nutrients, food, or nest sites with sensitive native species, crowding out or overshading native species and ultimately excluding them. Argentine ants displace native ants, cowbirds are significant nest parasites of several native passerines, and starlings may compete for tree hole nest sites with woodpeckers. In riparian and other aquatic systems exotic predators have proven to be severe problems to several native amphibians and fish. Identifying the circumstances that cause some species in some situations to become pests in southern California biomes is an important research area, particularly since the edge around reserve fragments is so extensive and is occupied by exotic species which could be invasive. These artificial habitats are not the natural "edge" and serve as corridors and extended entryways for feral cats, non-native snails, and other aliens to invade stands at many points.

Feral species and human generated dominance of urban tolerant mesopredators is a concern in an edge-rich reserves. Some native species, such as opossums, raccoons, striped skunks, and coyotes, thrive in urban/suburban situations and may become problematic. Though among the native bird fauna only around a fourth are able to inhabit "urban forests," some native species such as ravens reach large numbers in urban/suburban settings. The effect that the higher abundances of these edge-thriving urban forest species may have on predator-prey dynamics and competition with more restricted and sensitive non-edge species is not known.

A significant problem lies in understanding the kinds of invasives that could lead to cascading community affects at higher trophic levels and recognizing the warning signs in monitoring programs so that these effects are detected rapidly and early in the invasion or dominance cycle. It is important to recognize that "edges" are not just reserve boundaries, but can include roads, trails, firebreaks, and riparian and alluvial areas that run through reserves. Further study is needed to develop chemical and mechanical control methods for exotic plants within coastal sage scrub mosaics in reserves and to better understand their non-target effects.

F. Public Use

The process for creating open space preserves involves a high level of public input. If the preserve created through the necessity for mitigation of one or many development projects, it involves the nearby community groups as well as the public entity that ultimately approved the project. If the preserve was created through the use of publicly generated funds, it may have involved the input and positive vote in the ballot box by thousands of individuals. All of those involved in the creation of open space preserves have a feeling of ownership and a vision for what is appropriate for the preserve. In most cases, this translates into some form of demand for public use. Public uses which may be requested within a preserve include a diversity of activities which range from observation points for viewing wildlife, and of off-highway vehicle trails to hang-gliding landing and takeoff points. Furthermore, there are often requests for utility infrastructure to be allowed within preserve areas. However, natural communities and ecosystems which are intended to be protected within the preserve may be extremely sensitive to some forms of public use and the associated disturbance.

In order to fully understand the implications of particular uses within the preserve, there needs to be research which evaluates the various types of uses and the level at which they create unacceptable impacts. This type of research is critical because decision-makers are currently deciding the types of public uses to be allowed within a preserve. This type of research information is necessary to provide information to those decision makers so that uses that are harmful for the resources can be avoided or at least redirected to areas where they will be less impactive.

G. Biophysical Processes/Ecosystem Function

Although much of the emphasis on conservation management relates to maintenance or manipulation of biotic components (i.e., individual plant and animal species populations or communities), this management needs information on non-biological aspects of the local ecosystem as well to be fully effective. Although many ecosystem and associated physical processes may be beyond the ability of managers to manipulate, these processes set the context in which the biotic components respond (or not) to management efforts. For example, the interaction of precipitation with topography (two physical attributes of an ecosystem) determines the potential for soil movement or erosion, which in turn is both influenced by and influences local vegetation composition. Likewise, the apparently trivial observation that water moves down slopes has potential management implications. For example, sheetflow along surfaces can move propagules (e.g., seeds); if one is attempting to eradicate an invasive plant over a period of time, it makes more sense to work from the top of a slope down, so that recently cleared spaces do not become reinfested by input from above.

Nutrient cycling is one important feature that can also control ecosystem structure. In southern California, nitrogen cycles (which may strongly influence plant community composition and productivity) may be altered due to the greatly enhanced input of atmospheric nitrogen from air pollution. Plant species formerly limited by low nitrogen soils may now achieve much higher abundances, and thus in turn negatively impact species with which they may be in competition.

The two examples given above also illustrate how understanding ecosystem and physical processes is interrelated with other information needs. Adjacent land uses, for example, can affect precipitation runoff (either increasing or decreasing it). Uses may also affect the potential for chemical contamination. Perhaps one of the most significant short term ecosystem processes is fire (both its frequency and intensity); this process is important enough to rate a category of its own.

Land managers are charged with sustaining more or less natural ecosystems. Emerging theory relating to ecosystem sustainability focuses on interactions among climate, soil resources, major functional groups of organisms, and disturbance. Feedbacks among these components within ecosystems damp major oscillations that might otherwise lead to ecosystem instability. Thus it is imperative that we understand how these components relate to each other in each of the systems we wish to preserve, so that we can make changes (e.g., alter present disturbance regime by changing fire management practices) that promote the long-term persistence of the ecosystem structure we desire.

H. Reserve Design/Biogeography/Landscape Processes

A landscape assessment, across an entire ecoregion or other regional context, provides a unique perspective that enables an evaluation of entire systems and their component species. Only from this perspective can a manager understand the consequences of any single management action upon an entire species or an entire community. In this era of ecosystem management and multi-species or multi-habitat conservation strategies a regional perspective is needed. This perspective becomes imperative if managers are to succeed in sustaining a network of natural reserves within a matrix of urban and agricultural lands, as will exist with the coastal sage scrub lands in southern California. Managers must be equipped with this knowledge so they are aware of the implications of their actions to species and ecological communities that span the network of wildlands within the NCCP planning area.

The fragmented nature of the reserve system in southern California is a compelling condition requiring a landscape perspective. Ecological systems have inherent gradients across the landscape as changes in climate, soil, elevation, and other physical environmental factors are manifested in the biological communities. These gradients are typically gradual under natural conditions and plant or animal species have evolved in response to such gradients. What managers face today, particularly in the southern California environment, is the challenge of maintaining self-sustaining systems on lands that adjoin radically different land uses (e.g., housing, industrial, agricultural uses) where gradients are abrupt and these adjoining uses pose threats to the ecological integrity of the natural lands. The emerging system of reserves in southern California will inescapably exemplify this phenomena, and managers must be equipped to handle the resulting problems.

Several other factors suggest a high priority for landscape analysis. Self-sustaining populations of plant and animal species depend on a variety of ecological factors under which these species have evolved. Dispersal capabilities, resiliency to natural perturbations, and environmental and demographic variation are among the ecological factors that influence the ability of a species to persist. To adequately understand how these kinds of factors effect species persistence requires a comprehension of the regional implications of local actions. Remote sensing techniques, GIS technology, and regional monitoring strategies are among the methods now used to provide this perspective.

I. Restoration and Enhancement

Since major new land acquisitions to supplement the NCCP reserve are unlikely, a major potential for expanding habitat lies with the new field of restoration ecology. This field has the promise of providing corridors linking fragments and expanding natural stands of coastal sage scrub and other diminished natural habitats. Ecological restoration focuses upon whole community establishment and is distinct from reclamation, enhancement, rehabilitation and mitigation, as usually implemented. It is based upon emulation of an historic, indigenous habitat model. This approach to whole community recreation employs a monitored control site. The restoration site would be an accurate reflection of local natural species assemblages, condition, and function. Inevitably, since long-term processes like fire cycles have great impact on condition and function, this process will require many decades of monitoring and study.

Research challenges include producing habitat rapidly to sustain and provide alternative areas for sensitive taxa; instituting long-term successional and fire-resiliency functions in created habitats; and establishing enduring understory diversity and successional relationships. Other questions include:

  • What are the precise habitat preferences for gnatcatchers and other target taxa?
  • What will be the impacts of managing fire succession to sustain target taxa populations on habitat and non-target species?
  • How can target and non-target species be monitored in the long term?
  • How can site selection further the potential for colonization and other goals?
  • How can restoration and mitigation projects be designed to maximize "new habitat" potential?
  • How can large-scale salvage of coastal sage scrub assist in producing more viable habitats?
  • To what extent can natural coastal sage scrub stands be transplanted?
  • What is the viability of transplanted material?
  • How can this approach most effectively supplement other conventional and larger-scale techniques, such as imprinting and hydroseeding?

J. General Species, Program-Wide, and Regional Concerns

Reserve systems in NCCP are being built within the constraints of fragmentation, urbanization and other local limitations. The effects of these parameters on the sustainability of reserves and viability of target species is important and has been identified as information needs in other sections. Information needed by managers of NCCP reserves at the program scale takes two forms: natural process issues and species/habitat issues.

There are some crucial broad-scale effects of natural processes on persistence of NCCP reserves that should be identified and addressed. These include but are not limited to system-wide effects such as nitrogen deposition and the hydrologic cycle. At an even broader scale, challenges such as the effects of global climate change on species distribution and abundance and persistence of habitat-types are important to identify and reconcile with the disjunct, urban nature of the preserve system.

In addition to processes in effect at a regional and program scale, there are program-wide issues for individual species and habitat-types that should be identified and researched to provide information useful to managers. These include resolution of taxonomic inconsistencies, describing ranges of variation within and among habitat-types that make up the natural community complex in NCCP, and the interfaces between habitat types and how they affect persistence of species. There are other examples of regional, program and species-wide concerns that will be identified through broad-range analyses intended to uncover common issues for all the subregions implementing NCCP plans.

K. Historic and Adjacent Land Uses

Former land uses can significantly alter potential for restoration, succession trajectories in plant and animal communities, and long-term preservation. The central research questions deal with the lingering effects of past agricultural practices and what was grown at a site, grazing by sheep and cattle, non-agricultural land disturbance through abandoned construction and mining, roads, or recreational abuse, and altered as opposed to natural fire histories.

Similarly, adjacent land uses can have substantive and diverse influences upon reserve lands. Suburban/agricultural developments are potential sources for exotic plants and feral animals (cowbirds, cats, exotic snails, and fish, Argentine ants, Arundo, pampas grass, tamarisk); they can lead to nighttime light pollution potentially interfering with the foraging activities of nocturnal foragers and the reproductive behavior of insects. Pollutant discharges and water run-off from agricultural/suburban neighbors can lead to contamination and erosion of soil and siltation of aquatic habitats.

Research dealing with the following subjects is needed:

  • Direct and indirect intrusive impacts by light, noise, recreation, and pollution on neighboring natural lands;

  • The use of agricultural/developed areas as corridors and reservoirs for exotic and invasive animals and plants that may move into natural reserves (e.g cowbirds, Argentine ants, feral cats, exotic fish, bullfrogs, pampas grass, Arundo, iceplant, tamarisk);

  • Community changes in reserves due to human-requested "management" in neighboring lands to lessen fire threats, possible disease transmission, and large predator presence;

  • The width and type of buffer zones that are necessary to moderate or eliminate the above threats.

Adjacent land use can potentially alter microclimate by changing albedo, natural airflow patterns, humidity, runoff from hardscaped environments (more water flowing rapidly through watersheds, with associated microclimate changes), dominance by exotics in wetlands, and the composition of insect communities, perhaps including pollinators.

L. Habitat Management Practices

Stewardship involves primarily the mimicking of natural processes we have altered through decades or centuries of human land uses. Prescribed burns are to replace the wildfires we can no longer afford and now suppress. Grazing replaces the native herbivores that in many cases are no longer present. Exotics removal is an attempt to undo damage by organisms that we introduced. Restoration brings back habitat in an attempt to recreate self-sustaining ecosystems. Fences keep out off road vehicles, dogs or cattle; signs inform and educate.

Recognizing that we do not always know what is best for any system, we can, however, state with certainty that management of mitigation and conservation areas will be best when provided in a context of landscapes with interrelated habitats large enough to encompass and still allow a semblance of natural processes: predator-prey relationships, natural disturbances like fire and floods, vegetation and associated wildlife changes as communities progress through various successional stages and begin the cycle again.

The goal is to establish and maintain NCCP reserves that allow for natural disturbance processes (or a management-created surrogate) to continue. Disturbances, especially those that initiate ecological succession, are often critical in maintaining the natural structure and function of ecosystems.

Environmental constraints may be imposed by the physical or biological limits of a site, such as water availability, the presence of hazardous waste, or even the size and configuration of the preserve. For example, preserves of very small size (less than 50 acres) and with proximity to urban land uses can limit the ability of a manager to implement certain management strategies, such as grazing or burning. In this case, it may not be financially feasible for a lessee to graze such a small area, short of paying for the service. Alternatively, controlled burning is infeasible near residential areas because of effects on air quality as well as the risk of damage to property in the case of a wildfire.

Preserve management goals are characterized as measurable objectives to be determined by the purpose, characteristics and needs of the site. Ecological objectives are primary with respect to programmatic objectives.

  1. Maintenance of genetic variability within and among populations
  2. Arresting or preventing species decline
  3. Prevention of species extirpation/extinction
  4. Maintenance/restoration of functioning ecosystems
  5. Preservation, restoration or maintenance of natural or evolutionary processes
  6. Implementing management solutions at the landscape level
  7. Increasing scientific knowledge to improve management/understanding of natural systems

Management strategies describe in detail the heart of the management program by enumerating the actions that must be taken to achieve the management objectives and the overall preserve management goal. In some cases, management strategies will consist primarily of obtaining sufficient information (through research, surveys, or monitoring) to determine the appropriate management action.

In any given case, it is likely that one management strategy will help to achieve more than one management objective and each objective will require several strategies to succeed. For example, control of invasive annual grasses in a preserve through the use of prescribed burning may (1) help arrest and prevent species decline, (2) prevent species extinction if rare plants are present, (3) control invasive exotic annual grasses, and (4) restore a natural process. Likewise, another management strategy of controlled grazing could be implemented to diminish seed set of invasive exotic annual grasses and prevent buildup of thatch that inhibits germination of native forbs.

Properly designed habitat management practices should be structured to feed into an adaptive management strategy. Adaptive management is a process whereby results of management actions are regularly assessed by evaluating monitoring results to determine whether management objectives or defined "measures of success" are being achieved. If not, management practices are changed or modified as needed. Scientific research is indicated in some cases when information gaps are severely limiting management effectiveness or options. Scientific research and experiments in natural areas will usually be oriented toward answering specific management-related questions at the site, although in some cases sites may prove to be important resources for conducting basic research that contributes to our overall understanding of ecology.