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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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Wildlife Habitat Management on the
Northern Prairie Landscape

Setting Objectives for Wildlife Management

It is tacitly expected that wildlife management should benefit wildlife, but some management practices have unknown consequences. Direct benefits can arise only if the action changes the survival, reproduction, or distribution of animals in a desired way. Such biological benefits can be evaluated in a straightforward, if laborious, manner. More difficult to appraise are indirect benefits to wildlife; these usually involve influencing human actions or attitudes, and they may not pay off for years.

Ideally, we should have complete understanding of a system before we attempt to manage it. That is, we should know with some level of confidence what consequences will ensue from a specific action. We never have perfect knowledge, of course, so managers must act in the face of uncertainty. A reasonable question is: should the first course of action be gathering more information? That issue lies at the heart of many apparent conflicts between managers and researchers. Managers feel the need to act decisively to solve immediate and obvious problems involving wildlife populations. Researchers may believe that additional information could facilitate a better decision later. Without attempting to resolve that conflict here, let us agree that (1) any management action should be optimal according to some criterion in light of the available information, and (2) results of the actions should be monitored and assessed in relation to the objectives. The first guideline requires a statement of the objectives and restricts us to actions that most authorities would agree are warranted. The second stricture simply asks us how well we are doing and ultimately permits fine-tuning of the process.

This procedure requires, then, one or more defined objectives. These should be stated clearly, use easily understood terms, and be quantifiable, so that everyone can tell whether or not they have been met. For example, the North American Waterfowl Management Plan described below calls for restoring waterfowl populations to 1970s levels, or about 62 million breeding birds. This is a clear and quantifiable objective that can be related to a specific landscape area. From this statement of the objective, management options and their consequent effects can be assessed.

Once objectives are defined, procedures to accomplish them can be explored. Several options should be described, evaluated, and compared. Models can often serve a useful function here. As an example, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) productivity model (Johnson et al., 1987; Cowardin et al., 1988b) has been used to examine how specified combinations of management practices will address an objective on a specified landscape; this tool will be described later. It should be emphasized throughout, however, that direct benefits of management actions will result only by changing the survival, productivity, or (occasionally) the distribution of the animals. Activities that do not change one of these should be viewed cautiously. Outreach objectives that build public support and understanding must be factored into management schemes, but their outputs are hard to quantify.

Management options are often constrained by policies and politics. For example, acquiring habitat by purchase may be the best option for managing ducks in an area. If acquisition is against agency policy or lacking public support, alternatives must be sought. Likewise, if predator removal would cause a major increase in game bird populations, but is unacceptable because of public attitudes, alternatives must be explored. Politics has been called the art of the possible; by this definition, wildlife managers must sometimes become politicians.

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