Monday, November 10, 2014

Reflecting on research: Structured Decision Making coaching

My work as an SDM coach is by far the most impactful, meaningful contribution I make to wildlife management in this country. 

I volunteer as a structured decision making coach for the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), typically once per year. I was one of many participants in the “first draft” of the SDM workshops held at NCTC in 2006 which ultimately lead to a publication demonstrating my ability to construct stochastic dynamic programming models (Tyre et al 2011). In 2008 I coached a group of staff from US Army Corps of Engineers and US FWS on the Missouri River that led to the extensive work documented below. In 2013 I coached a group of biologists from the Atlantic coast through the process of decision making for Piping Plover recovery (see published NCTC report). That effort is continuing and will significantly influence on the ground conservation for the species in the future. In early 2014 I served as the “lead coach” for an SDM workshop, overseeing 6 teams from across the continent on everything from setting permit conditions for importation of endangered species to allocation of fire management funds at a continental scale.

From 2008 through 2011 I was closely involved with the Missouri River Recovery Program (MRRP). This involvement led to one peer reviewed publication (Bueno et al 2013), and brought in $421 000 in funding to UNL. Most importantly however, the models developed under my direction for Interior Least Tern, Piping Plover, and Pallid Sturgeon continue to be used by the MRRP to this day to make forecasts of species responses to changes in habitat on the river. The general framework of objectives, alternatives, and consequences that I guided the MRRP to in 2011 remains in place, and forms the basis for the program’s new efforts to guide decision making for habitat restoration on the river.

In 2014 I worked with the Management Board of the ArcticGoose Joint Venture on whether or not to implement “direct control” measures for the mid-continental population of light geese. These measures would be in addition to the current expanded sport harvest. As a result of the workshop the board was able to conclude that the potential gains from direct control were too small or too uncertain to offset a very large political cost of – and near-certainty of legal challenges to – direct control. They now have a very solid framework for revisiting this decision in the future, and a clear place to use new scientific information.

Now I'm working with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on Deer Harvest Management. Hard to see where that will go, but I'm pretty happy with this body of work to date. 


  1. This is a terrific program and it's heartening to read that there's been genuine uptake after many workshops. I think it'd be wonderful if NCTC and its SDM leaders were able to provide extended reflection and follow-up on the factors that have affected uptake, e.g. team make-up, decision scope, simple vs complex modelling, short vs long-term outlook, funding structures, ...

    The projects are diverse and might not lend themselves to a straight forward synthesis but nevertheless I imagine that many SDMers and modellers would be keen to learn from the challenges and successes of the program.

    From the NCTC and "problem haver" side, it could also be useful for recognising up front which problems are a good fit for SDM (vs those needing conflict resolution or another tool) and what the obstacles are likely to be along the way.

  2. Thanks for the comments Cindy. The notion of putting together some kind of synthesis of those issues has occurred to a few people. So far no one has taken the time needed! I've started haphazardly interviewing a few people with an idea of getting at those "preconditions" directly, but very slow progress.

  3. So wonderful to see academia-agency cross pollination! You set a great example