An adaptive management approach to conservation aims at sustainable outcomes
Scientists of the San Diego Zoo’s Applied Animal Ecology Division conduct important behavioral and ecological research to advance the institution’s conservation mission. The division espouses an adaptive management approach—which means gathering information about the entire ecosystem over time in order to understand how endangered and threatened species are impacted by factors like habitat degradation, predation or competition.
In the case of San Diego County, scientists have, over the years, noted significant habitat loss and fragmentation due to human activity. Such changes have led to the diminution of native grasslands and a proliferation of aggressive invasive species.
Unfortunately for animals like the California ground squirrel, robust non-native grasses are ill-suited for nesting. As a result, local squirrel populations have undergone a marked decline. And when habitat loss affects a squirrel population’s success, it has a ripple effect.
“Typically, where there are ground squirrels, there is higher species diversity,” says J.P. Montagne, Research Coordinator with the Division. In a way, squirrels are architects of the ecosystem. But when squirrel populations lack crucial components of the habitat they require for their own survival—the right soil, the right vegetation—they begin to decline. And so too do those bird and rodent species who rely on ground squirrels’ cast-off burrows for nesting.
The western burrowing owl – which is at risk of extinction in San Diego County, California -- is no exception. With fewer and fewer burrows available for nesting, the burrowing owl now risks local extinction.
While a simple short-term solution to this problem might be to construct artificial burrows in which owls could nest, Montagne and his team see this option as unsustainable. The ultimate goal of conservation work, he says, is to help reestablish healthy, self-sustaining ecosystems that require little future intervention from humans.
The theory goes that if you can bring back the squirrels, you’ll also bring back the burrowing owl population. In reality, however, it’s much more complicated than that. Squirrel survival is dependent on a wide array of environmental and behavioral factors that go far beyond a macro-view of habitat loss.
The San Diego Zoo seeks to understand those factors that facilitate the natural system’s population dynamics. And that means experimentation and ultimately, data analysis.