Risk aversion and confirmation bias in conservation planning

Choosing among alternative management actions to protect endangered species can be a fraught exercise in light of uncertainty about the outcomes. As Stefano Canessa and his colleagues point out in their article Risk aversion and uncertainty create a conundrum for planning recovery of a critically endangered species recently published in Conservation Science and Practice, the prospect is even more daunting when one or more of the alternatives has the potential to worsen the status of the species. That said, science has the potential to provide decision-makers with valuable information in such circumstances, thereby reducing uncertainty. 

 

Canessa and his colleagues assess nest protection options for critically endangered regent honeyeaters, native to Australia, as a case study in conservation biology. The authors employed formal expert elicitation to evaluate several methods of nest protection for the bird intended to improve its nest success — that is, recruitment.  They explain that adopting a decision-analytic approach with best practices for expert elicitation and decision support helped to identify the management action with highest support, but the decision-maker, in this case, the recovery team, decided to maintain the status quo rather than adopt the preferred management action.

 

The authors attribute the decision made to risk aversion — the notion that the status quo has a lesser chance of resulting in a negative outcome than the alternative management action supported by the decision-analytic approach informed by expert elicitation.  But they also explain that the choice made by the decision-maker may be the result of confirmation bias; the inclination to interpret information to confirm one’s pre-existing biases. Canessa and his colleagues urge decisions makers to “carefully consider risk aversion and possible biases before discussing specific [management] actions.”  In California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, there is a high potential for risk aversion and confirmation bias due to the existence of a dominant paradigm reflected in the Delta Stewardship Council’s commitment to “one science.”  Even when evidence has emerged that hatchery management and predation likely are key limiting factors on salmonid populations and that entrainment in water export facilities is not a limiting factor on smelt populations, decision-makers continually fail to address the former factors and focus on the latter factor.

 

Resource managers might consider the analysis by Canessa and colleagues, which reinforces the concerns identified by scholars, including Silliman and Wear (2018) who build on path-breaking work by Tversky and Kahneman (1974), which could provide the impetus for decision-makers in the Delta and elsewhere to make more transparent and less biased resource-management decisions in the future.

 

 

Read the original article — Canessa S. et al. 2020. Risk aversion and uncertainty create a conundrum for planning recovery of a critically endangered species. Conservation Science and Practice 2:e138. 

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