Thursday, July 6, 2017

Solutions to managing invasive species by combining research with local knowledge

--> *This was originally published at the Applied Ecologist's Blog

While many hurdles hamper the successful application of ecological concepts and theories to developing solutions to environmental problems, one area of ecological concern that has been especially consequential and complicated to solve has been the control of invasive species. The non-native species that end up spreading in new regions with massive impacts on local ecosystems are difficult to predict beforehand, and eradicating invasive species is a nearly impossible task. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on invasive species control, there are few success stories. Realistically, the best-case scenario is finding efficient management strategies that reduce the abundance and impact of invasive species to acceptable or tolerable levels.
Image: African lovegrass (

Part of the problem is that researchers and research organisations, which are needed to develop management strategies, are usually stretched thin and unable to devote the time and resources needed to develop evidence-based solutions. A research project into the control of invasive species requires baseline data, an understanding of basic species ecology, and a list of candidate control measures. These starting points are not trivial to satisfy and often require years of basic research before we can assess possible control measures. One of the reasons often given for this limited success is that ecological systems are inherently idiosyncratic or unpredictable. However, this lack of predictability is virtually inseparable from a lack of system specific knowledge. This lack of fundamental understanding means that we may be asking the wrong questions or pursuing inefficient management solutions based on our assumptions about an ecosystem’s behaviour.

In many systems, there exists an underutilised resource -the experience of local landowners, farmers, and ranchers. A recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology titled Integrating local knowledge and research to refine the management of an invasive non-native grass in critically endangered grassy woodlands by Jennifer Firn, Emma Ladouceur, and Josh Dorrough represents a new approach to incorporating local knowledge for testing invasive species management options. This paper, to my mind, constitutes one of the best and most innovative attempts to integrate detailed local non-scientist knowledge with modern research methods.

The study by Firn and colleagues takes an original approach to addressing research and invasive species control shortcomings by working with Australian landowners who have intimate knowledge of the grasslands they work in and, more importantly, how they have changed over time. Firn’s research team interviewed these landowners and developed specific hypotheses based on landowner knowledge about African lovegrass (Eragrostis curvula) growth and spread in Australia, an invasive plant introduced from southern Africa. Firn and colleagues then scientifically tested these hypotheses, showing support for some landowner perspectives, and disproving others.
This research is crucial because it shows how research and management can be made more efficient by working with local landowners. It breaks down the walls that separate academic and professional applied management from local citizens and landowners who do not work in intellectual vacuums, but rather observe, contemplate and develop questions. The scientists provide the means for landowners to test their questions.

I firmly believe that this work will change the perspective of how researchers and scientific and environmental organisations carry out their research. It shows how powerful partnerships can be, and that knowledge and expertise sharing can maximise understanding and management solutions.
Ultimately, this work will not only directly benefit Australia’s environment by providing management options for controlling African lovegrass but will also provide a template for developing solutions to any environmental problem. It is evident that researchers working on other exotic species can emulate Firn and colleague’s work, but perhaps less clear, and what should repeatedly be broadcast, is that this method should be employed for managing other environmental changes including the effects of climate change and altered land use.

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