Rural System's

Modern Wild Faunal Resource System Management
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Research and the Rationally Robust

Also see Giles, R. H., R. G. Oderwald, and A. U. Ezealor. 1993. Toward a rationally robust paradigm for agroforestry systems. Agroforestry Systems 24:21-37.

Research, like the good doctor, has an aura about it of objectivity, formality, and rigor but it is not an aura needed in all fields. Research has solved some problems, given us some advances, and has given many people a useful pattern of thought for over a century. Increasingly, that pattern is being shown wanting. Research is said to answer questions, but it is also said that if you ask the wrong questions you will get wrong answers. Research is said to be descriptive, but of what? There are many "scientific questions" which cannot be answered by science. A few people say that research is predictive, but don't people have something to say about what happens in the future? There are many, many problems faced by people for which research has neither the answer nor an approach. A substitute is needed, at least an alternative. The needs are conspicuous in wild fauna resource management - throughout the world.

It is easy to be hypercritical about anything. I am not a devil's advocate, merely an observer with a little energy left over for suggestions.

One problem with research came upon me like a hawk over my tree stand: suppose there are about 300 important bird species in India. (For now, let us not quibble about the actual number or the meaning of "important"). There are needed about 200 observations about each bird to complete all entries in a wildlife information system. These 200 items are selected from a much longer list. It is a group of need to know vs. nice to know observations selected by a variety of wildlife workers. Many facts are known for deer but many are not; deer are one of the best known animals. Some take years of study, others only a brief period. I round off my estimate at a very conservative estimate of one year needed for each observation, then I suggest an even more conservative $50,000 required to pay and equip a scientist for a year. It includes all travel, rent, equipment, computers, support staff, and salaries but it has never been analyzed exclusively for wildlife research people. (Frankly, I think the amount exceeds $50,000.) While several observations will be made in a few days, I assume I can make one official entry in our database per year. The cost of doing all of this is $3,000,000,000! If there were 1000 scientific wildlife researchers, it would only take 60 years. We cannot meet the research needs of the birds of India alone, much less those of the world, by the conventional, accepted research pathways. We have not even mentioned the similar research needs of the mammals, reptiles, amphibians, mollusks, oh yes, the fish and equally as important - the insects, whether we study them as disease vectors, critical food supply for some other animals, or object of specific management, such as the butterflies.

Once there was the notion of "do basic research" then publish it. It was a rule and the hidden assumption behind it was that one day your findings would be discovered and put into practical use. In wildlife systems, one day may never come. Irrelevant is the perfect word for a discovery made for a species that has just become extinct.

In the most logical of all areas, research, I now perceive an illogical underpinning. It is illogical for us to continue using the classical, experimental, inductive approach to gaining wildlife knowledge. Wildlife resource workers will never gain the budgets needed, the staffing and expertise, the time, or the requisite use rates of conclusions-reached. It is irrational for us to proceed in the current fashion.

I feel as though I have painted myself into a corner. How do I get out? I am not sure. I need help; I beg for it; I am confident that it is available. Perhaps I can build a bit of a structure from my little corner to help with a bridge (if that is what is seen as needed). I fear, not for myself, but for the wildlife resource, if I should be left in my gloomy, freshly-painted little corner. Only these changes are mentioned here, mostly to give the idea examples. More will be given in future Antler Points where I acknowledge the power of conventional research patterns but believe that, with such patterns, alternatives are needed. These might include:

  1. A site on the internet where serial observations are recorded with time of occurrence, observer, time since the last observation, and emphasis on trying to gain the maximum and minimum possible values. Ranges, the outer limits, will be found to be as useful in many decision situations as the high cost, large-sample-size statistical struggles for an average or a mean value.
  2. Rejecting the quaint phrase: we learn from history that we do not learn from history. History can be a wonderful teacher if we have the ability to hear. We get too much noise. We focus on details and miss the messages. "There will be a flood!" This is near calamity, yet we concentrate on depth, flow rates, dollars lost, and other details. We need to sort out the things we now know, like floods and fires do occur, trees grow, epidemics occur, people help each other. We know a lot! I remember well a skeptical student noting the impossibility of predicting the leader that emerged from a Vietnam village and turned the tide of the war in an area. He was right, but that leaders will emerge can be predicted. When generalized and modeled and retrieved in conjunction with other things we know, we will achieve our objective. Our objective is to know, not to do research.
  3. A wildlife information system must eventually embrace plants as well as animals. There is no logical separation. Is a plant in the gut of a deer a part of the animal or exclusively a part of the plant world? I think that wildlife is all wild life. In order to manage plants well, a great amount of knowledge is needed. All factors about each plant cannot be learned in separate studies. The plants themselves remain enigmas. Where one species stops and another starts is debated. Mobile plants, such as the liverworts, have animal characteristics. Plant forms and their characteristics differ on different sites. A general knowledge base is needed, one rooted more in "expert systems" than in conventional taxonomic keys. So much has been learned of plants over time that many generalizations can be made, many fields of knowledge in a computer information base filled with an expressed high degree of confidence. The entry has to be general because we do not have the time or the money to continue our studies plant by plant.

    Not wishing to describe the system needed, at least I see its potential for providing relevant answers to questions, as shown here, of increasing complexity:

    1. What species occur in county X? What "threatened" species in area G?
    2. What species occur in county X, Y, and Z, but not Q?
    3. What species of genera f, g, and h occur where species p occurs?
    4. What is the similarity index for plants in wildlife area A and B?
    5. What is the seasonal total gross energy in plants eaten by creature C in area A assuming average density of plants and average size of each plant?
    6. What aquatic plant species are eaten by or used by species of fish that are eaten by furbearers that are in river reach R?
    7. What threatened plants in region T depend upon insects in any life stage and, of the insects listed, what positive management activities will ensure they are present every year, in sufficient numbers, to meet the plant requirements?
We may yearn for research, for the specificity and confidence it seems to give. The hard lesson, not yet learned, is that it is very expensive, takes much time, requires specialists, and risks remain. We have not learned that we do not work with simple fruit flies in all cases. We work with incredibly complex and changing systems. They are about as predictable as the flight of a flock of pigeons. We are short on money, time, and skills. Answers are needed. There has to be an alternative. The above three examples are part of a concept I call the rationally robust. It is badly needed for all of the realms of natural resource management.

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Last revision January 18, 2004.