Full-cycle adaptive management in Australia’s arid rangelands

Boolcoomatta is a conservation reserve that has been managed by Bush Heritage Australia for 10 years, during which time the management plan has cycled through three major adaptations based on analysis of implementation and results. Highly commended in the Case Study competition, some experiences and learnings from multiple iterations of the Open Standards cycle are outlined here. Nine years of monitoring data civering 3 upadtes of the evolving plan inform this analysis, assess the effectiveness of the plan, and measuring impact

Background

Boolcoomatta is located in the arid rangelands of north-east South Australia. The area has been home to the Adnyamathanha aboriginal people (pronounced Adna-mut-na) for over 40,000 years. In the early 1800’s they were dispossessed when Europeans arrived and established large pastoral stations and mining activities. Boolcoomatta was established as a sheep station in 1845 and remained a productive operation until it was converted to a conservation reserve and acquired by Bush Heritage in 2006.

The 64,200 hectare (approx 160,000 acre) property is located in a poorly-protected bioregion and was rated by the government as the highest priority for reserve acquisition in South Australia. It is home to 6 threatened vegetation communities and at least 23 threatened species, including the Critically Endangered Plains Wanderer and at least 22 other endangered species.

Results and Lessons Learned

Key results are summarized in the progress score cards. The viability of most key conservation targets has improved gradually, illustrating the slow pace of ecological change in semi-arid environments. These viability ratings are drawn from measures, indicators and key attributes in Miradi’s viability table. Most key threats have reduced although some (feral cats, and total grazing pressure) have increased and are the focus of renewed efforts in the latest iteration of the plan.

Progress score cards
Progress score cards

This decade-long project has provided many insights and lessons for managing long-running projects.

  • During this time there have been 4 different project leaders managing the Boolcoomatta project. This has highlighted the importance of collecting project information in a systematized way so that new managers can quickly pick up this knowledge and gain insight into the activities and experiences of previous managers. Progress Reports stored in Miradi is one way to support this. It also highlights the importance of clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of the project team.
  • Full-cycle reviews of the management plan have highlighted the gap between the ambitions of the plan and the actual resources available to implement it. It’s easy for planning sessions to develop high aspirations for achieving conservation outcomes, yet the resources actually allocated to the project can fall short of expectations. This creates pressure for team members who are highly committed to their work and often want to do more than what is physically possible. To minimize this issue there needs to be an overt realignment of objectives in the plan to fit with the resources available – this often means deferring the timeframes for achieving particular results, adapting the plan to address the highest priorities, and having information on desired actions readily available to take advantage of new funding opportunities. A fundamental need is to ensure the plan’s objectives are SMART – with particular emphasis in the “R” – ensuring that the work can be “resourced”.
  • Through the development of the 2016 plan, many programs with many more activities were developed from ten years of learnings. For example, the review identified the need for increased efforts on collection of feral cat data, to inform ongoing management of or threatened and endangered species. By using Miradi, along with our other systems of management, we have been able to adjust our plan to reflect the on-ground priorities and redirect resources for improved conservation outcomes.
  • Good monitoring requires resourcing – in terms of costs and time; often when resources are tight it’s the first thing cut. But it’s vitally important for analyzing results and adjusting the project’s course. Careful selection of the right indicators – to monitor what matters most – and prioritising them, helps to ensure that monitoring still occurs when resources are limited. Collecting measures in systems and feeding the results back into the plan along the way helps to promote awareness of the value of monitoring.
  • Building and retaining partnerships takes time and care. Projects like this require support from a lot of people – neighbours, traditional owners, government reps, politicians, other conservation groups – all of whom have their own priorities and objectives. These relationships need to be carefully handed over as new managers come into the project. In remote communities a shared cup of tea goes a long way.
  •  Most projects identify the threats at the start of the project, then set about reducing them. But long-running projects can have new and unexpected threats arise – such as a new uranium mine on a neighbouring property, and regional expansion of feral predators. This highlights the need to regularly update the plan to adapt to new threats and opportunities.
  • The definition of targets and threats can often depend on who is in the room. Taking good records of discussions, and recording the rationale for selections, is of great use 5 years down the track when the plan is being reviewed by a different group of people. Keeping this information in Miradi and complimenting this with oral and written records (videos, photos, and databases) means it is available for all to see and truly understand the evolution of effort and association to the plan.
  • Long-running projects mean project staff will inevitably change; this creates an on-going need to keep training new people in the Open Standards and Miradi. Having access to good reference and training material, and other people who can support them, is critical.
  • Additional effort is required to communicate and share the project’s results, but this pays back in many ways including increased donor, volunteer and community support for the project. Links at the end of this case study show examples of media stories that have shared our experiences.
    Miradi needs some refinements to cater for full-cycle iterations of plans. For example, there’s no way to keep a record of a change in Threat rating – changing a high threat to a low one should be cause for celebration, but the information gets lost.

Scalability and Transferability

One key benefit of using the Open Standards is the common approach and common language that it provides. Similarly, using Miradi to manage information for all projects helps people to build competency and to take this with them as they move to other projects. While we are all still learning, having a standard approach means our people can more readily move from one project to another, and comparisons can be drawn between projects. Also, by capturing similar information across multiple sites we can scale up to organization-wide outcome reporting. This requires regular and ongoing support from people skilled in Open Standards and Miradi to the users; supporting project team members to “learning by do” has proven more effective than isolated training. The lessons learnt from Boolcoomatta can be and are applied to Bush Heritage’s other projects, and vice versa. There’s value in finding ways to share lessons amongst the broader conservation community.

This blogpost summarises the 10-year anniversary event, and the Miradi file is publicly available on Miradi Share

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