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USA - The role of conceptual ecological models in implementing the federal Endangered Species Act

In the implementation of the federal Endangered Species Act, and its California counterpart, wildlife agencies should make greater use of conceptual ecological models and adhere to best practices for their use.

Conceptual models help us to understand the world around us without becoming overwhelmed with its complexity. Societal use of conceptual models is pervasive. Corporate organizational charts offer means to understand and express relationships within the business entity. Road maps represent transportation systems and the built environment. Depictions of food webs give insights into ecosystem structure, function, and composition. Conceptual ecological models are a specialized subset of conceptual models generally intended to describe the environmental factors that affect an ecological community, a species, or a population.  Conceptual ecological models are useful in a variety of contexts ranging from development of research proposals and monitoring schemes, to regulatory decision-making applied in the development of biological opinions and habitat conservation plans. In the implementation of the federal Endangered Species Act, and its California counterpart, wildlife agencies should make greater use of conceptual ecological models and adhere to best practices for their use.

The British statistician George Box famously noted in 1976 that “all models are wrong, some are useful.” This is as true for conceptual ecological models as it is true for other models. As the National Research Council explained in a volume Models in Environmental Regulatory Decision Making (2007), all models are a simplification of reality, which is of course both a weakness and a strength.  On the one hand, models are inevitably inaccurate in some of their attributes, hence they are not comprehensive reflections of reality.  On the other hand, models — especially parsimonious models — incentivize scientists and policy makers to focus on the environmental factors that have the greatest potential to influence the fate of an ecological community or a species.

The limitations of models acknowledged, agency experts and scholars agree that conceptual ecological models, developed using the best available scientific information and professional standards of practice, can aid conservation planning efforts.

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