From late-August to mid-September the ASMT met in virtual breakout groups to discuss issues related to conservation design & the development of the GCPO's conservation Blueprint.  For these meetings, ASMT members as were joined by leaders of State Wildlife Action Plans, members of Partnership Advisory Council groups (Joint Ventures & SARP), and FWS Refuge System staff (I&M biologists & regional planners).  Science Coordinator Todd Jones-Farrand led each group through a series of brief presentations (1) detailing the LCD Process, (2) refining the focal habitat systems for the GCPO, (3) reporting progress on a bottom-up assessment of current conservation investments, and (4) designing a top-down assessment of the best places for collaborative conservation.  The latter 3 presentations were followed by an interactive session where participants answered questions relative to the topic.  A summary of each discussion follows, and the complete set of questions and responses is available for each group: GCPO-wide Aquatics, West Gulf Coastal Plain (WGCP), East Gulf Coastal Plain (EGCP), Gulf Coast (GC), Ozark Highlands (OZHI), and Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV).

Focal Habitats

Habitat systems are the common currency of our diverse partnership. Whether folks are focused on invertebrates, vertebrates, plants or ecosystem services, habitat restoration and maintenance are the primary mechanisms through which we achieve our goals.  Thus, those habitat systems that the GCPO partnership chooses to focus on represent the building blocks of our common vision for GCPO landscapes.  Todd presented each team with a crosswalk of habitat systems identified in the GCPO’s Integrated Science Agenda (ISA) with those identified in State Wildlife Action Plans.  Whereas the ISA identifies only a couple broad habitat systems in each sub-geography (e.g. forested wetlands & big rivers in the MAV), the States have identified many habitat types across the full spectrum of habitat systems.  To strike a balance between these, Todd asked the group a series of questions about which habitat systems were important in the subgeography, what systems the GCPO should add to the ISA, and what ISA systems may need to be sub-divided.  This exercise resulted in 3 groups of habitat systems: systems that are important wherever they occur (forested wetlands, rivers & streams, tidal marsh, beaches & dunes); systems that are more important in some areas than others (pine woodlands, upland hardwoods, grasslands); and systems the GCPO should consider adding to the ISA (shrublands/glades, natural lakes, freshwater marsh, seagrass beds, caves & karst).  Folks in the WGCP & OZHI did favor splitting both Upland Hardwoods (mesic forests and dry woodlands) and Open Pine (open pine and pine oak), whereas folks in the EGCP suggested waiting until a subsequent iteration to split Open Pine into 3 categories (open pine, pine-oak, & flatwoods).  The Landscape Endpoints in the ISA are currently structured in a way that could allow splitting Upland Hardwoods, but not Open Pine.  However, the GCPO-funded project with NatureServe will facilitate such a move & is slated for completion in March 2016.  In general, folks recognized the importance of “working lands” for some species as well as for bringing private landowners to the table.  However, this is a topic that needs much more discussion.  Including it as a focal habitat system would obligate us to set objectives – How do we/should we set objectives for working lands?

The Aquatics group also reviewed progress on the GCPO-funded project “Freshwater aquatic landscape condition and species endpoints for the GCPO LCC region.”  This project was funded to refine the Aquatic portions of the ISA & is being led by Mary Davis of the Southeast Aquatic Resource Assessment Partnership.  Mary presented an overview of the project and detailed her work to develop a better stream classification based on fish sampling data.  The classification system is based on 5 characteristics: ecoregion, relative elevation (upland vs. lowland), stream size, gradient (as an indicator of velocity), and substrate texture.  Substrate was proving to be a difficult characteristic to map, & Mary proposed using soils data to inform this criterion.  In general, folks thought the project was heading in the right direction, that the stream classification could prove useful, and that soils maps could provide useful info on potential stream substrates.  However, some questioned the use of fish species, and particularly fish species of greatest conservation need, and others questioned the quality of the sampling data (mostly opportunistic sampling).  In addition, questions were raised about whether spring runs were included and whether or not we could include seasonality of flow (important for high gradient streams especially that might dry up in the summer.  It was clear from some comments that folks needed more time & more detailed information to be comfortable with the classification as a basis for planning.

Bottom-up Assessment

The GCPO’s bottom-up assessment of conservation priorities seeks to leverage our current investments.  These investments are the foundation for building a conservation design that will sustain species into the future.  Todd gave an overview of the database GCPO staff are building as well as progress on collecting spatial data on partner priority places.  The groups immediately identified the need to recognize the context (focal habitats &/or species, rigor of the process, links to decision making) of each data set of priority areas. Todd proposed that this assessment focus only those specific places where we could be sure conservation resources were being expended.  As part of this proposal, broad priority areas (the proverbial “circles on a map”) would be incorporated into the GCPO’s top-down assessment.  In response to questions on this topic, most folks saw value in the bottom-up assessment and there was general support for Todd’s proposal.  However, this “follow the money” approach didn’t resonate with everyone.  Several participants voiced the concern that conservation resources are being expended opportunistically not strategically.  Thus, the foundation of our conservation design may not be solid.  Further, we need to be careful we don’t miss areas where projects are “done” or places where on-going management contributes to our goals but is not part of a restoration project (e.g. military bases).

Top-down Assessment

The GCPO’s top-down assessment of landscape conditions seeks to identify the best places for collaborative conservation to link up our current investments.  These areas provide the opportunities for adaptation strategies to deal with landscape change (climate, urbanization, etc.).  Todd reviewed themes common to prioritization schemes used to identify Conservation Opportunity Areas in State Wildlife Action Plans as well as other priority area setting processes.  He then pointed out that the LCC can add value to these assessments through the Desired Ecological States (i.e. collections of Landscape Endpoints) dscribed in the ISA, as well as through projections of future conditions funded by the GCPO &/or others.  Todd proposed 2 straw dog approaches to landscape assessment based on this information.  The first approach included 4 themes common in this type of work: Current Habitat Condition, Threats & Stressors, Biodiversity, and Partnership Opportunity.  The second approach used only Current Habitat Condition and Threats & Stressors.  In response to questions on this topic, most folks preferred the 4-theme approach.  Although Partnership Opportunity (based on broad definitions of priority areas by partner organizations) and Biodiversity (based on some index of Species of Greatest Conservation Need as identified by State Wildlife Action Plans) could be somewhat redundant with Current Habitat Condition, both provide some unique information and perspective.  That said, there were many comments that questioned the quality and value of this information (not all partners have spatially depicted priority areas, we have a paucity of data for many SGCN species, etc.).  Further, just using the term “Biodiversity” set off alarm bells for some.  Not surprisingly then, folks were supportive of identifying a process to select a reduced number of species.  With respect to the Threats & Stressors theme, Todd presented a draft index based on urbanization & climate change.  The breakout groups identified 14 additional sources for consideration including (but not limited to): invasive species, water availability & management, energy development and lack/loss of land management capability.

Optimization Analysis

At the end of the top-down assessment presentation, Todd very briefly introduced the idea of optimization modeling as a potential approach for tying together the bottom-up and top-down assessments.  The advantage of doing so would be to have an objective way to identify the optimal set of landscapes wherein conservation investment could achieve our targets for species & habitats.  It was clear from the comments across all groups that this approach needs more explanation and discussion.  Some folks saw it as a very useful or at least politically expedient approach, whereas others were uncomfortable with or unclear on using area as the cost function (i.e. “identifying the minimum area needed to meet our objectives”). 

ACTION ITEMS/NEXT STEPS:

  1. Todd will work with Mary Davis to provide documentation to ASMT members on the need for & development of the stream classification.
  2. Todd will prioritize progress on the bottom-up & top-down assessments according to the groups of habitat systems identified during the habitat discussion.  Revision of the ISA based on these discussions will tentatively be part of the agenda for the 2016 in-person meeting.
  3. LCC Staff will draft map products for 2 habitat systems (Forested Wetlands & Med/Low-gradient Streams) for the next meeting. 
    1. Bottom-up assessment: I will continue to collect priority areas as available but will focus on getting data on locations of restoration sites, on-going management, and reference sites (i.e. areas regarded as high quality sites including Natural Areas, completed restorations, etc.)
    2. Top-down assessment: I will flesh out the prioritization Rule Sets (i.e. what information is used & how it will be handled) for each criterion. 
      1. Current Condition Index – to be based on LCC Staff efforts to map Landscape Endpoints contained in the ISA.
      2. Risk Index – to be based on LCC funded urbanization and climate projections; will also explore availability of data related to other threats
      3. Species Index (referred to as the Biodiversity Index in the meetings) – for starters, I’ll develop this index for the species identified in the ISA as a working example for the Team to respond to.
      4. Partnership Index – based on stated priority areas whose targets specifically include the habitat system or species linked to it
      5. Composite Rank – I will develop a method for combining the 4 indices into a composite score for each catchment.  Given comments in these meetings as well as in the June 2015 meetings, I will also include 2 alternatives for weighting the importance of each Index (equal & unequal weights).
  4. Todd will develop doodle polls for subsequent meetings.
    1. Review of Rule Sets & draft map products
    2. In-person meeting in 2016 Q1.
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