I&M Plans: Useful Game Changers
Last spring, at Little River National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in a strip mall in Broken Bow, OK, eight U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees pored over every known survey conducted at the refuge. It’s a scene that will be repeated at hundreds of refuges and wetland management districts over the next five years.
Little River Refuge was one of five refuges in five regions that agreed to pilot the development of individual refuge inventory and monitoring (I&M) plans. The others were Muscatatuck Refuge, IN; Rachel Carson Refuge, ME; Kodiak Refuge, AK; and Anaho Island Refuge, NV. Morris Wetland Management District in Minnesota recently became the first WMD to hold a similar workshop.
They were doing so because Refuge Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) Policy signed in January requires each station to write an I&M plan that identifies surveys to be conducted in the next 10-15 years. The plans will look beyond refuge boundaries to examine landscape-scale conservation potential. The plans also will enable current and future refuge staff members to understand which surveys were conducted and why.
Survey protocols will be reviewed for scientific rigor, and the policy includes a peer-reviewed handbook, How to Develop Survey Protocols.
The policy also adds an important practical aspect to monitoring.
“It’s not just the monitoring that we have always done, but monitoring intended to inform and influence management decisions – that’s the game changer. To do that, the data must get analyzed, and the results must get written up,” said Mark Chase, director of the Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, CO, where the I&M program is based.
The Little River Refuge team spent a day putting each survey through a prioritization tool. The group looked hard at which surveys were critical to refuge operations and which were helpful but not vital. Turkey surveys scored low. Surveys for threatened American burying beetles ranked high because of an Endangered Species Act Section 7 requirement; they were selected for the I&M plan.
Paige Schmidt, an Oklahoma-based I&M zone biologist, described her approach to developing the Little River Refuge plan.
“I prepared by consulting with the policy to find what the requirements were, and then I assembled a team,” she said. “We wanted someone from the national office to answer policy questions, the Southwest Region I&M coordinator to help ensure consistency across the region, and other local colleagues who could both lend experience on the subject matter and learn from the experience of Little River.”
Bill Pyle, supervisory biologist at Kodiak Refuge, said the refuge’s 2007 comprehensive conservation plan and recent science review “provided a framework that really expedited development of the I&M plan. We just modified objectives to consider new factors like climate change.”
The Midwest Region starts with habitat monitoring plans and takes I&M plans a step further. “We do a cost-benefit analysis, and ask the refuge staff to estimate the amount of time they have to do surveys,” said zone biologist Sean Blomquist. The region develops sets of survey combinations, and the refuge selects the surveys that best meet high priority information needs and can be accomplished with available staff.
Anaho Island Refuge, with I&M team assistance, used the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation to ensure surveys were aligned with refuge objectives.
Little River Refuge manager David Weaver was pleased with the process, recognizing that it’s important to have a clear and concise plan for current and future staff members.
“You have a document that is going to be usable,” he said. “I can read through this is an hour or two, and it’s easy to follow and understand.”