Biodiversity indicators: 10 common mistakes

In a paper published in 2003 in the Journal of Environmental Management, Lee Failing and Robin Gregory list 10 common mistakes made in designing biodiversity indicators for forest management. The paper is a worthy read for anyone dealing with issues of monitoring or decisions concerning land-use or ecosystem management.

According to the authors, indicators can have three uses: tracking performance (for results-based management), discriminating alternative hypotheses (for scientific exploration), discriminating alternative policies or management options.

In their paper, they focus on the latter. They list ten common mistakes made in developing and using biodiversity indicators aimed at providing guidance to policy makers or forest managers who must decide on landscape or forest management policies and plans. Deciding whether or not to allow a specific project to go forward requires a different suite of indicators than assessing whether or not the project was a success.

They provide a nice example to illustrate their point:

When we go to the doctors and ask “what is my risk of heart disease”, we do not expect the answer to be framed as a percentage of the target daily donut intake”. (…) Eating fewer donuts may be part of a sensible management strategy but it does not answer the question “am I healthy?” A report of two dozen indicators may be an important part of the the analysis process, but it is also not an acceptable answer to the question (…). Doctors it seems understand the need to take a complex thing, break it down into a relatively small number of indicators, and provide a summary judgement about the status of our health or the probability of recovery associated with alternative treatments.

The 10 mistakes:

  • 1. Failing to define end-points – Is the aim to preserve ecosystem services or scenic value, to prevent the loss of a particular set of species or the intrinsic values and rights of all species.
  • 2. Mixing means and ends – Appropriate performance indicators should focus on the desired goals, not on whether “actions” were taken. Guideline are no substitute to goals.
  • 3. Ignoring the management context – Outside a specific context, “biodiversity” has no meaning – The context must thus be specified.
  • 4. Making lists instead of indicators
  • 5. Avoiding importance weights for individual indicators – Unfortunately, stating that “everything is important” doesn’t work in practice.
  • 6. Avoiding summary indicators or indices because they are considered overly simple
  • 7. Failing to link indicators to decisions
  • 8. Confusing value judgements with technical judgements
  • 9. Substituting data collection for critical thinking – If no data is available, then the authors suggest using established methods for gathering and synthesizing qualitative expert judgements.
  • 10. Oversimplifying: Ignoring spatial and temporal trade-offs – In giving examples for mistake 10, Failing and Gregory mention the importance of taking into account spatial and temporal trade-offs in designing policies aimed at no-net-loss of biodiversity. Temporary and /or local losses could provide – or be made to – provide gains at a broader scale or on the longer term. The same point is made by Kerry ten Kate in an EM podcast on making biodiversity offsets work (mp3).
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