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Ecol Appl. 2011 Apr;21(3):844-58.

Allocating conservation resources between areas where persistence of a species is uncertain.

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  • 1Applied Environmental Decision Analysis Centre, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Queensland 4072, Australia.


Research on the allocation of resources to manage threatened species typically assumes that the state of the system is completely observable; for example whether a species is present or not. The majority of this research has converged on modeling problems as Markov decision processes (MDP), which give an optimal strategy driven by the current state of the system being managed. However, the presence of threatened species in an area can be uncertain. Typically, resource allocation among multiple conservation areas has been based on the biggest expected benefit (return on investment) but fails to incorporate the risk of imperfect detection. We provide the first decision-making framework for confronting the trade-off between information and return on investment, and we illustrate the approach for populations of the Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) in Kerinci Seblat National Park. The problem is posed as a partially observable Markov decision process (POMDP), which extends MDP to incorporate incomplete detection and allows decisions based on our confidence in particular states. POMDP has previously been used for making optimal management decisions for a single population of a threatened species. We extend this work by investigating two populations, enabling us to explore the importance of variation in expected return on investment between populations on how we should act. We compare the performance of optimal strategies derived assuming complete (MDP) and incomplete (POMDP) observability. We find that uncertainty about the presence of a species affects how we should act. Further, we show that assuming full knowledge of a species presence will deliver poorer strategic outcomes than if uncertainty about a species status is explicitly considered. MDP solutions perform up to 90% worse than the POMDP for highly cryptic species, and they only converge in performance when we are certain of observing the species during management: an unlikely scenario for many threatened species. This study illustrates an approach to allocating limited resources to threatened species where the conservation status of the species in different areas is uncertain. The results highlight the importance of including partial observability in future models of optimal species management when the species of concern is cryptic in nature.

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