Habitat - Research
Date Published: August 2011
Number of Pages: 236
Author(s): Michael A. Schroeder, Rex C. Crawford, F. Joseph Rocchio, D. John Pierce, and Matt Vander Haegen
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) serves Washington's citizens by protecting, restoring, and enhancing fish and wildlife on private and public lands, such as those support by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). In order to make informed management decisions aimed at maintaining or protecting ecological integrity, credible data on how human activities affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of ecological systems needs to be collected (USEPA 2002). Indicator-based (ecological endpoints) approaches to assessing and reporting on ecological integrity (Harwell et al. 1999, Young and Sanzone 2002, USEPA 2002) are now being used by numerous organizations to assist with regulatory decisions (Mack 2004, USACE 2003, 2005, 2006), to set mitigation performance standards (Mack 2004, Faber- Langendoen et al. 2006, 2008), and to set conservation priorities (Faber-Langendoen et al. 2009a).
Assessing the current ecological condition of an ecosystem requires developing indicators of the structure, composition, and function of an ecosystem as compared to reference or benchmark examples of those ecosystems operating within the bounds of natural or historic disturbance regimes (Lindenmayer and Franklin 2002, Young and Sanzone 2002). Given the complexity of ecological systems, concerns over cost-effectiveness and statistical rigor, and the loss of adequate reference sites, the selection and development of indicators can be challenging (Brewer and Menzel 2009). There is a need for a method which provides guidance on the range of options for assessing ecological integrity, scaled both in terms of the scale of ecosystem type that is being assessed, and the level of information required to conduct the assessment. NatureServe and the Natural Heritage Network have recently developed such an approach called the Ecological Integrity Assessment (Faber-Langendoen et al. 2006, 2008, 2009a, 2009b) and are now implementing it for a variety of small- and large-scale projects (Lemly and Rocchio 2009, Faber- Langendoen et al. 2009b, Tierney et al. 2009).
The Ecological Integrity Assessment (EIA) method aims to measure the current ecological integrity of a site through a standardized and repeatable assessment of current ecological conditions associated with the structure, composition, and ecological processes of a particular ecological system. These conditions are then compared to those associated with sites operating within the bounds of their natural range of variation. Ratings or scores for individual metrics and overall ecological integrity are presented in a clear and transparent scorecard matrix. The purpose of assigning an index of ecological integrity is to provide a succinct assessment of the current status of the composition, structure and function of occurrences of a particular ecosystem type and to give a general sense of conservation value, management effects, and restoration success. As such, the EIA will address a number of objectives including: (1) assessment of ecological integrity on a fixed, objective scale; (2) comparison of ecological integrity of various occurrences of the same ecological systems; (3) determination of, and support for, conservation priorities; (4) improved decisions on monitoring individual ecological attributes; and (5) provision of an aggregated index of integrity to interpret monitoring data.
The general framework of the EIA will be tailored by regional and local ecologist to more specifically address the complexity of individual ecosystem types using the following approach: (1) develop a conceptual model with key ecological attributes and associated indicators; (2) apply a three-level approach to identify a suite of metrics, including Level 1 (remote sensing), Level 2 (rapid ground-based), and Level 3 (intensive ground-based) metrics (USEPA 2006); (3) identify ratings and thresholds for each metric based on deviation from the ‘natural range of variation’ benchmarks for each metric relative to each type; and (4) provide a scorecard matrix by which the metrics are rated and integrated into an overall assessment of ecological integrity. The EIA aims to standardize expert opinion and existing data up front so that a single, qualified ecologist could apply the EIA in a rapid manner to get an estimate of a site’s ecological integrity. The EIA can improve an understanding of current ecological conditions which can lead to more effective and efficient use of available resources for ecosystem protection, management, and restoration efforts. The flexibility in scale, detail, and level of effort associated with the threelevel approach around which the EIA is developed provides a foundation upon which a multiscaled approach to monitoring and assessment can be systematically implemented.
Recognizing that EIAs are essential tools for monitoring and evaluating these resources, the WDFW contracted with the Washington Natural Heritage Program to adapt the EIA method (Faber-Langendoen et al. 2009a) as an approach for developing standards and a monitoring protocol for measuring desired ecological conditions on State Wildlife Areas. This document presents a framework in which the EIA can be used to achieve those objectives. This document (1) describes the EIA method; (2) provides an overview of how the EIA will be used within the context of a multi-scaled monitoring program; and (3) describes how the EIA approach will be applied to wildlife areas in Washington.
Development of a comprehensive monitoring and evaluation strategy has been a long process and this document borrows heavily from earlier documents on the subject (Ashley 2007, Schroeder et al. 2009, Rocchio and Crawford 2009b) which provided much of the foundation for this effort. It is also likely that this report will be a stage in the process, rather than the ‘final word’. Because of the complexity of the topic, numerous acronyms and abbreviations (Appendix A) are used, as well as common names for species (Appendix B).
Michael A. Schroeder, R. C. Crawford, F. J. Rocchio, D. J. Pierce, and M. Vander Haegen 2011. Ecological integrity assessments: monitoring and evaluation of wildlife areas in Washington. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Olympia, Washington.