What is ecosystem management?
This broad term covers a range of methods employed to promote the natural production of an ecosystem. There are a variety of different types, from adaptive management to landscape-level conservation management. Before undertaking a project, stakeholders should determine which method is best suited to the long-term viability and sustainability of the area.
Ecosystem management, long considered to be the feather in the cap of wildlife sustainability measures, protects and promotes the natural processes and production of an ecosystem. Rather than focusing on single species or processes in isolation, ecosystem management requires systems thinking.
This line of thought involves understanding (or seeking to understand), how individual components influence and interact with each other as part of a whole. With this in mind, it is necessary to consider the short-term and long-term effects of intended development projects and conservation efforts.
One of the most infamous examples of ignoring systems thinking in favor of individual components is conservation bias. Several studies demonstrate that bias towards certain species, like the bald eagle or the humpback whale, negatively impacts the allocation of both financial and scientific resources. When efforts focus solely on a single species, the ecosystem as a whole is ignored, leading to ineffectual conservation.
For this reason, it is necessary to divert attention not to the species that garner the most attention (such as the playful humpback whale) but to the environment in which they live (directing efforts to protecting and managing ocean ecosystems will benefit the humpback whale in addition to a host of other species that are on the periphery of human attention, such as the less ostentatious finback whale).
History of ecosystem management
Humans have practiced ecosystem management since we first dabbled in agriculture. While the phrase ‘ecosystem management’ was not coined until the mid-20th century, its principles guided various peoples throughout history, such as those following the cultural practice of setting fires on the west coast of North America. These controlled, low-intensity fires helped prevent large-scale, destructive fires from taking place.
Why it matters now
From a global health perspective, harnessing the natural outputs of an ecosystem, while at the same time maintaining its ecological integrity, promises a sustainable pathway to growth and development. This nature-based solution also promotes biodiversity, which continues to decrease at an alarming rate worldwide.
In a world with an increasing frequency of extreme events, such as forest fires and massive flooding, hazard management goes hand in hand with ecosystem management. Anyone who has seen photographs of coastlines protected by mangrove forests versus deforested coastlines following a hurricane will understand the stark difference.
A recent study of the Swiss National Park, linked below, is among several demonstrating that areas protected under ecosystem management practices have a lower susceptibility to extreme events than those not under ecosystem management. It is thus in our best ecological and economic interest to protect and conserve the ecosystems around us and in which we live.
Brussard, P. F., Reed, J. M., & Tracy, C. R. (1998). Ecosystem management: What is it really? Landscape and Urban Planning, 40(1-3), 9–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0169-2046(97)00094-7
Martín-López, B., Montes, C., Ramírez, L., & Benayas, J. (2009). What drives policy decision-making related to species conservation? Biological Conservation, 142(7), 1370–1380. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2009.01.030
Stritih, A., Bebi, P., Rossi, C., & Grêt-Regamey, A. (2021). Addressing disturbance risk to mountain forest ecosystem services. Journal of Environmental Management, 296, 113188. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2021.113188