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U.S. Geological Survey - Science and Decisions Center

Applications in the Field

This page highlights applications now being implemented in the field. These applications are directly connected to thematic concerns of the Center.


Adaptive management of forested land after the Biscuit Fire, Oregon


Wildfire. Credit: BLM.

Fire-adapted ecosystems were historically maintained in the Pacific Northwest by relatively frequent wildfires of low to moderate intensity. In Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest, an average of 8,000 hectares burned annually until the 1940s, but over the next 50 years that figure fell by almost 90 percent. Between 1940 and 1990, large, plume-driven forest wildfires became uncommon in Oregon and Washington as a result of systematic and effective fire suppression. However, an unintended consequence, the decades-long buildup of dead fuels, probably contributed to recently increasing numbers of very large fires. In 2002, drought, heat, and other climate factors led to a series of Pacific Northwest wildfires, culminating in the nation’s biggest fire, the Biscuit Complex fire, which consumed about 200,000 hectares of forest. The magnitude of the Biscuit fire and new mandates regarding management of late-succession and riparian habitats under the Northwest Forest Plan created much uncertainty about the most appropriate forest management after a wildfire. Rather than choosing the typical method of “salvage” logging and replanting, U.S. Forest Service researchers helped develop a peer-reviewed study plan that was adopted in the final Record of Decision for the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project. Adaptive management is being used to compare three competent management strategies on 14,500 hectares of land in the Rogue River–Siskiyou National Forest and Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management, in order to understand better how to manage forests after large wildfires.





Adaptive Management of water from the R.L. Harris dam, Tallapoosa River, Alabama

Tallapoosa Deer

Deer crossing the Tallapoosa River. Credit: Graves Lovell, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Extensive hydropower development has altered riverine habitats in the southeastern United States, which is a global center of freshwater fish and invertebrate diversity. The Tallapoosa River in east central Alabama is a priority area for aquatic conservation, with a native fish assemblage of 57 species, including 5 species endemic to the Tallapoosa River system. Of these, four fishes and one mussel are considered to be “at risk” by the Fish and Wildlife Service. Fish and invertebrate populations in one of the highest-quality segments of Tallapoosa habitat were threatened with extirpation by daily extreme low flows, drying, flooding, and temperature changes resulting from pulsed flow releases for hydropower at the utility-owned R.L. Harris Dam. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been evaluating relicensing of more than 200 dams in the southeastern United States – including the Harris dam – that are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Through the Southern Rivers Integrated Science Initiative, the Service has recognized the great need for new approaches to evaluate dam relicensing, and new strategies to mitigate the impacts of dam operations on aquatic communities. Rather than the one-time fixed flow regime typical of FERC relicensing prescriptions, adaptive management designed by USGS scientists has been used on the Tallapoosa since 2005 to allow for the adjustment of flow management on the basis of what is learned from system responses. This project is intended to provide a template for incorporating adaptive management and decision support into the FERC relicensing process.




Adaptive management of horseshoe crabs as food resources for red knots, Delaware Bay

Red Knot Banded

Red knot foraging. Credit: Greg Breese, USFWS.

The sandy beaches of Delaware Bay in Delaware and New Jersey are globally important spawning grounds for Atlantic horseshoe crabs and stopover habitat for long-distance migratory shorebirds such as the red knot. Annually, the birds stop in Delaware Bay during May to rest and replenish their energy reserves while migrating from wintering grounds in temperate and tropical regions to breeding grounds in Arctic regions. They stop in the bay to exploit the seasonally superabundant horseshoe crab eggs deposited on the beaches by millions of crabs that spawn during the lunar tides each spring. Throughout the 1990s a growing and unregulated harvest of horseshoe crabs for use as bait in eel and whelk fisheries led to a decline in numbers of spawning crabs. In the late 1990s, monitoring data began to show major declines in red knot abundance. Shorebird scientists and advocacy groups blamed horseshoe crab fishing as the root cause of the red knot decline, while other scientists and horseshoe crab fishermen’s groups argued that red knots are not solely reliant on horseshoe crab eggs for food, and that some other environmental factor must be responsible for the decline in red knot numbers. Conservationists called for a complete cessation of horseshoe crab fishing in the Delaware Bay, while other groups called for moderate regulations in order to protect the horseshoe crab fishery. Adaptive management designed by USGS scientists was initiated on this contentious issue, with a goal of identifying a sustainable horseshoe crab harvest strategy that protects red knots and enables learning about how the system functions. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has recently voted to implement this adaptive management strategy.


Adaptive management of waterfowl hunting, nationwide

Bufflehead Scaup

Bufflehead and greater scaup. Credit: Donna Dewhurst, USFWS.

Adaptive harvest management was developed to deal explicitly with multiple sources of uncertainty in the regulation of sport waterfowl hunting in North America. Early each year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces its intent to establish waterfowl hunting regulations and provides the schedule of public rule-making under authority of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (as amended) and other relevant laws. The agency director appoints a Migratory Bird Regulations Committee with representatives of the Waterfowl Flyway Councils, which presides over the process and is responsible for regulatory recommendations. Adaptive harvest management is the framework adopted by the Committee to deal with uncertainty in the regulation of sport waterfowl hunting in North America, including uncontrolled environmental variation, partial control of harvests, and uncertainty concerning waterfowl population dynamics and the impact of harvest. The approach produces optimal regulatory policies that account for each possible combination of breeding population size, environmental conditions, and the current level of understanding. A regulatory choice is identified each year, and post-decision monitoring data are used to update biological understanding for the next year. In this way harvest policy evolves adaptively over time as new knowledge is incorporated. This is one of the world’s most successful large-scale applications of adaptive management.




Adaptive management of disturbance at golden eagle nests, Denali National Park, Alaska

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle in flight. Credit: Donna Dewhurst, USFWS.

Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the golden eagle is the pre-eminent diurnal predator of medium-sized birds and mammals in open country. The mountainous regions of Alaska’s Denali National Park support the highest nesting density of golden eagles in North America, with undisturbed cliffs for nests that are used over decades or even centuries, and abundant snowshoe hares, ptarmigan, and other prey. Nesting eagles are sensitive to human disturbance, and the National Park Service must limit human presence near nest sites in order to maintain Denali’s eagle population. Eagles may occupy any of nearly 100 potential nesting sites across the northeastern part of the park between March and September during the course of their reproductive cycle of nest repair, egg-laying, and rearing eaglets to independence. This means that a large portion of Denali, a premier national wilderness recreation destination during the summer months, could potentially be off limits to hiking and other enjoyment of the park. To reconcile the conflicting demands of maximizing recreational access to as much of the park as possible, and minimizing disturbance of nesting eagles, the national park uses adaptive management designed by USGS scientists to make annual decisions about whether and how much to limit recreational hiking near nesting areas.






The Center's ongoing projects in support of science for decision making include field studies, cooperative agreements, books, articles, and conferences.

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Williams, B.K., and E.D. Brown. 2012.  Adaptive Management: The U.S. Department of the Interior Applications Guide. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior.

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sdcUSGS Science and Decisions Center - Advancing science-based decisions about natural resource management

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Liaison Activities

Advisory Committee, 12th National Conference on Science, Policy, and the Environment, National Council for Science and the Environment, Carl Shapiro and Ken Williams, members.

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Applications in the Field

This page higlights applications now being implemented in the field. These applications are directly connected to thematic concerns of the Center.

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