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NIMBioS Working Group:

Hierarchies in Conservation

Topic: Spatially optimizing investments in biodiversity conservation across decision hierarchies

Meeting dates: November 13-15, 2017; May 16-18, 2018

Paul Armsworth, NIMBioS, Knoxville, Tennessee
Kailin Kroetz, Resource for the Future, Washington DC.
Christoph Nolte, Earth and the Environment, Boston Univ.

Objectives: Governments and NGOs invest billions of dollars each year to establish new protected areas to combat continuing declines in biodiversity. Over the past 2-3 decades, mathematical biologists have led efforts to systematize and optimize how conservation funds are allocated. Software they have developed casts the task of identifying habitats for protection as an integer programming problem where the aim is to choose sets of potential protected areas that together offer complementary protection to species. While such tools have seen wide uptake by conservation organizations, the impact they have on informing actual conservation decisions and any associated gains in biodiversity protection has often been questioned. One obvious limitation is that currently available tools and approaches fail to acknowledge the importance of institutional structures and constraints on conservation decision-making. Resource allocation decisions in conservation often take place hierarchically; a state, national or international program allocates funding and other resources to regional programs or other local groups where staff then decide which parcels of land should be protected. This Working Group will examine how spatial optimization approaches that aim to inform protected area priorities should take into account this hierarchical structure. The group will pay specific attention to objectives of programs at various scales in the hierarchy, information flow (about species distribution, land costs, etc.) and propagation of uncertainty across the decision hierarchy, and will use game theory to examine possible consequences of and remedies for coordination and incentive misalignment problems that can affect conservation initiatives.

Mtg # Dates Agenda Summary Photo Evaluation
1 Nov 13-15, 2017 pdf Link Link TBA
2 May 16-18, 2018 pdf TBA Link -

Meeting 1 Summary. This was the first meeting of this Working Group. The 2.5 day meeting brought together 15 interdisciplinary scientists, including computer scientists, applied mathematicians, ecologists and economists from four different countries (US, Mexico, Portugal and Australia). 1 NIMBioS Fellow and 2 NIMBioS affiliated faculty participated.

As this was our first meeting, the first day focused largely on meeting one another and developing a shared understanding of our focal topic. This included presentations exploring how the topic is discussed in different disciplines and what data are available to support applications. We also discussed issues like getting to a shared language for what we were discussing. We brainstormed on just which subquestions the Working Group was most excited about, a necessary step as this was the first time we had all come together. We then used a voting process to allocate participants to a set of break-out themes that would structure much of the remainder of the meeting.

Day 2 started with a presentation about how organizational hierarchies shape actual conservation planning, focusing on biodiversity conservation programs in Mexico. The remainder of Day 2 and much of Day 3 went to break-out activities. Four inter-related break-out themes are advancing from this first meeting, each with an identified theme lead.

  1. Accounting for hierarchies in integer programming approaches to spatial prioritization for biodiversity conservation. lead: Armsworth.
  2. Embedding a better representation of human responses to policy interventions into reserve site selection methods. lead: Kroetz
  3. Planning for species persistence under changing conditions in conservation planning methods. contact - lead: Alagador
  4. Quantifying spatial crowding in and crowding out in conservation interventions - lead: Nolte. Day 3 also included a plenary discussion agreeing on next steps and discussing general Working Group logistics.

Finally after the conclusion of the Working Group, participant Dilkina gave a seminar presentation on accounting for connectivity in spatial optimization methods in conservation as part of the Baker Center Energy and Environment forum, which was attended by participants drawn from across the campus and within the Working Group.

Working group photo.
Meeting 1 participants: (Back row, L to R): Xingli Giam, Christoph Nolte, Jorge L. Soberon, Kailin Kroetz, Paul Armsworth, Diogo Andre Alagador, Kate Helmstedt; (Front row, L to R): Sahan T.M. Dissanayake, H. Jo Albers, Charlotte Chang, Leticia Ochoa, Mona Papes, Gwen Spencer. (Not pictured): Charles Sims, Bistra Dilkina

Working group photo.
Meeting 2 participants: (L to R): Charles Sims, Christopher Nolte, Sahan T. M. Dissanayake, Xingli Giam, Charlotte Chang, Kailin Kroetz, Heidi Jo Albers, Kate Helmstedt, Gwen Spencer, Paul Armsworth, Bistra Dilkina, Rachel Fovargue. Not pictured: Mona Papes


NIMBioS Working Groups are chosen to focus on major scientific questions at the interface between biology and mathematics. NIMBioS is particularly interested in questions that integrate diverse fields, require synthesis at multiple scales, and/or make use of or require development of new mathematical/computational approaches. NIMBioS Working Groups are relatively small (up to 10 participants), focus on a well-defined topic, and have well-defined goals and metrics of success. Working Groups will meet up to 3 times over a two-year period, with each meeting lasting up to 2.5 days.

A goal of NIMBioS is to enhance the cadre of researchers capable of interdisciplinary efforts across mathematics and biology. As part of this goal, NIMBioS is committed to promoting diversity in all its activities. Diversity is considered in all its aspects, social and scientific, including gender, ethnicity, scientific field, career stage, geography and type of home institution. Questions regarding diversity issues should be directed to Dr. Ernest Brothers, the NIMBioS Associate Director for Diversity Enhancement ( You can read more about our Diversity Plan on our NIMBioS Policies web page. The NIMBioS building is fully handicapped accessible.

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NSF logo. NIMBioS is supported by the National Science Foundation through NSF Award #DBI-1300426, with additional support from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.
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