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Adaptive Management and Strategic Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is an ongoing natural resources management process of planning, doing, assessing, learning and adapting, while also applying what was learned to the next iteration of the natural resources management process. Adaptive management facilitates developing and refining a conservation strategy, making efficient management decisions and using research and monitoring to assess accomplishments and inform future iterations of the conservation strategy. The goal of adaptive management is to make natural resource management more efficient and transparent, thereby making resource management agencies and organizations more credible and wide-reaching. In some instances, these goals cannot be reached by one entity implementing adaptive management alone. In those instances, strategic adaptive management is needed.

What is Adaptive Management?

Strategic conservation seeks to efficiently implement the right conservation practices in the right place in the right amount at the right time to achieve a desired set of habitat and biological conditions. Over the past century the complexity of addressing conservation challenges in the African Great Lakes Basin has increased. Resource managers must simultaneously consider multiple species, habitats, ecosystem processes, socioeconomic values, political and geographic boundaries and the other stakeholders involved when making decisions to strategically conserve the African Great Lakes ecosystem. To deal with this complexity, conservationists have developed and adopted guiding complementary management principles like ecosystem management principles like ecosystem managementlandscape conservation and adaptive management to facilitate strategic conservation.

Adaptive management is an ongoing process of planning, doing, assessing, learning and adapting, while also applying what was learned to the next iteration of a management process. It is a flexible decision-making process that allows a conservation plan or project to be adjusted as the results of various actions become better understood. Put another way, adaptive management offers a way for managers to “learn while doing” and apply what they learn from each action to subsequent actions and projects. By facilitating the testing, assessing and adapting of conservation actions, adaptive management encourages innovation and experimentation, links science to decision-making and improves long-run management outcomes. There is growing scientific and practical support for applying an adaptive management approach. The figure below from the IUCN Freshwater Task Force document "Strategic adaptive management guidelines for effective conservation of freshwater ecosystems in and around protected areas of the world" provides examples of why adaptive management is necessary, what constitutes adaptive management and how it can be implemented.

In short, adaptive management is designed to mindfully facilitate action with a specific purpose (strategic), facilitate learning while doing and facilitate stakeholder engagement and empowerment (participatory).1

Adaptive management is most likely to succeed when it is used to design projects that must be planned and developed despite uncertainty and complexity, and when managers are willing to adapt, engage stakeholders and implement all adaptive management steps. (Page iv of the United States Department of Interior’s Adaptive Management Technical Guide offers a good list of questions to consider when deciding if adaptive management is appropriate.) 

Adaptive management: Why it is necessary, what it is and how it can be implemented.
Figure 1. Adaptive management: Why it is necessary, what it is and how it can be implemented.2


Who uses Adaptive Management?

Across the conservation sector, numerous country and local governments, regional organizations and non-profits rely on adaptive management to guide their actions. The entities that implement adaptive management, however, often refer to it by different names or terms than described here. Regardless of what name and what terms are used, each entity’s process can still be labelled as adaptive management as long as it is focused on learning while doing (i.e., assessing and adapting), and also involves completing in some way the steps outlined in the next section. For a specific example of how adaptive management has been used with much success, check out the case study on the development and application of strategic adaptive management within South African National Parks.


How is Adaptive Management Implemented?

Adaptive management consists of three basic steps: Planning, Implementation and Evaluation. This framework allows natural resources managers to create a vision, set objectives, engage stakeholders to scope and review options for objectives, implement selected options, evaluate and learn and, finally, adapt as needed to achieve conservation outcomes. It also encourages stakeholder engagement and should be defined as a continuous ongoing process that changes and evolves as more information is gathered and understood. 

The following outlines the key steps of the process, but, as noted in the previous section, the titles of these specific steps are not intended to be restrictive. Any process that involves the actions taken within each of these general steps could be considered an adaptive management process. Conservation practitioners interested in implementing adaptive management may also want to explore the numerous training materials available elsewhere, such as for the Open Standards or the IUCN Freshwater Task Force, as this article is not intended as a comprehensive instructional document. 

Schematic of the steps in an adaptive management process.
Figure 2. Schematic of the steps in an adaptive management process.3

Pre-Step. Set Context

Before beginning the steps of the adaptive management process, project teams must determine the project’s social, economic, and environmental context, as this will influence the major steps.4During this pre-step, the project leaders should also be identified and stakeholder engagement strategies set. It is important to begin by setting the context and defining the degree of management that is needed and that is currently in place. Beginning with this step improves the chances that stakeholders will have an accurate picture of the project and that dialogue and planning can be done with an understanding of and agreement upon the current situation. This pre-step involves developing a list of relevant values and political considerations: 

Step 1. Planning

The first step in the adaptive management process is to create a plan. This plan should include objectives, strategies and a plan for assessing progress (i.e., indicators of success). External stakeholders should be engaged throughout this process. This step involves the following sub-steps: