DELTA LEAD SCIENTIST REPORT: Ecological metrics for conservation planning and monitoring, Delta Lead Scientist office hours, and more …

At the April meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Lead Scientist Laurel Larsen spotlighted a research article that studied ecological metrics for conservation planning and monitoring, introduced the new Sea Grant Science Fellows, and updated the Council on the latest activities of the Delta Science Program.

Some of the most significant conservation challenges faced in the Delta require a landscape-scale approach to planning. For example, as temperatures warm and sea level rises, species are likely to shift their ranges seeking cooler temperatures. A major conservation challenge is ensuring that those species will be able to access favorable habitats under both current and future conditions.

For example, with respect to sea level rise, a bird could fly from an unfavorable patch of habitat on the landscape to a more favorable patch, but an amphibian could become trapped on an island of higher ground with no access to food or mates.  Alternatively, rising sea levels might leave a narrow corridor that could be traversed to access favorable habitat upslope.  So distinguishing between these outcomes and comparing different scenarios faced by different species requires a way to effectively quantify the spatial configuration of the landscape for the movement and dispersal characteristics of the species of interest.

Landscape ecologists have developed many types of connectivity metrics that accomplish this objective. Structural metrics are based on the configuration of habitat and non-habitat patches within the landscape. Functional connectivity metrics are based on actual observations of how species move through landscapes. There are also other metrics to quantify connectivity that could account for how easily different species move through different types of non-habitat or simply how far each species is dispersed before it needs to encounter another habitat patch to survive.  There are many ways to quantify a complex spatial phenomenon and how it might impact different species with different characteristics.

While this diversity of tools is generally a good thing as it’s probable that there’s a tool that addresses this specific research or conservation question of interest, it can also be problematic because there’s no one metric that fits all applications, which creates challenges for applicability to environmental management,” said Dr. Larsen.  “In addition, adoption of a landscape-scale approach to conservation challenges is really in its infancy. So this is a hot area of research interest that there’s been abundant progress on in recent years.”

So recognizing this, the Delta Science Program convened a symposium on connectivity in 2020.  The Delta Science Program’s Annika Keeley was one of the conveners of that symposium.  Dr. Keeley has coauthored a paper published in Biological Conservation titled Connectivity Metrics for Conservation Planning and Monitoring that synthesizes this body of work and directly applies it to conservation challenges. 

In the paper, Dr. Keeley reviewed 35 different connectivity metrics and developed a decision tree for conservation managers to help them determine the most appropriate connectivity metric for their conservation objective, given the landscape context, and if applicable, the species of interest.

One of the things I really like about this paper is the general discussion that it engages in with respect to biological conservation in general,” said Dr. Larsen.  “The discussion reinforces the argument that connectivity of a landscape may be quite different for birds versus fish, or even males versus females of the same species. Moreover, future connectivity for specific species might be very difficult to predict if the fundamental nature of the habitat is changing as a result of climate change and sea level rise. With this in mind, it suggests that perhaps the most useful way to quantify the connectivity of a landscape for conservation purposes and long term resiliency is to evaluate simple structural connectivity based on natural versus heavily modified areas and prioritize particular areas for conservation on the basis of maximizing that physical activity.”

The figure on the slide illustrates the various ways to think about the connectivity of a landscape.  The figure on the left shows structural connectivity, in which the landscape is classified as either habitat or non-habitat.  The figure to the right of it shows that certain species might be able to traverse large patches of non-habitat, whereas other species aren’t. The next figure to the right shows landscape connectivity specific to certain species, based on how each individual species can move through patches of non-habitat.  The figure on the far right shows functional connectivity quantified by observations of species movement through the landscape or observations of how different species move through the landscape. 

As agencies begin to implement the 30 by 30 goal and start to think strategically about conservation, Dr. Larsen said the article serves as an important reminder to do so in a landscape context and provides useful tools that can be used to compare different alternatives. She noted these types of tools might be beneficial for the Delta Adapts project when thinking about the types of Delta landscapes that will promote the greatest ecological resiliency in the face of climate change.

These tools could be readily incorporated into scenario development or modeling platforms such as the Delta landscape scenario planning tool, a tool developed by our partners at San Francisco Estuary Institute through funding from the Delta Stewardship Council that’s been generating a lot of excitement within DPIIC member agencies,” said Dr. Larsen.

So the takeaway that I want to leave you with today about this article is that planning at the landscape scale is absolutely essential in ensuring the resiliency of the Delta in the face of climate change and that there are a number of tools for comparing alternative management strategies that are available,” said Dr. Larsen.  “But we really do need to invest in that forward-looking science and collaborative scenario planning to get there.” 

Councilmember Don Nottoli asked about the more colorful graphic (second from the right-hand side.) 

This way of viewing landscapes doesn’t view those landscapes as binaries as simply habitat or non-habitat,” said Dr. Larsen.  “It does classify the habitat for species, but the intervening areas are ranked based on how easily that particular species move through that type of landscape. The colors in this particular diagram represent the resistance of those non-habitat patches.  The blue is low resistant species are can easily move through that portion of the landscape, whereas yellow and the warmer colors are high resistance. …  Something like that could be really complex and probably not suitable for management that differs for every species. Still, if you’re very interested in a particular species, this could be a useful representation of the landscape.

One of the arguments with this article is that we can really get a long way to anticipating how resilient a landscape is likely to be for a variety of species just by looking at the delineation of natural versus human-dominated patches of the landscape and ensuring that there are these natural landscape corridors that a large number of species could potentially access.”


Dr. Larsen next introduced the new 2021 California Sea Grant State Fellows for 2021.  The State Policy Fellows Program, administered through California Sea Grant, situates some of the top people in Masters and Ph.D. programs in the area with local agencies to help translate science into policy.   

The 2021 California Sea Grant State Fellows Class are:

Emily Ryznar:  Ms. Ryznar will be working in the Delta Science Program’s Collaborative Science and Peer Review Unit, where she will be supporting the development of collaborative science initiatives in the Delta, aid science funding, and cultivate science communication skills, among other ventures.

Jennica Moffat:  Ms. Moffat will be working with the Delta Science Program’s Science-Based Adaptive Management (SBAM) Unit, where she will assist in synthesizing reports for the SBAM Unit and supporting the Delta Independent Science Board’s efforts.

Karen V. Gutierrez: Ms. Gutierrez will be working in the Delta Science Program’s Science Communication, Synthesis, and Decision Support Unit to assist in effectively communicating science across different audiences.  She’ll be part of a team contributing to science-driven decisions in the Bay-Delta system.

Sarah Farnsworth:  Ms. Farnsworth will be working in the Delta Stewardship Council’s Planning and Performance Division, where she’ll be work on projects relating to the Delta Plan, climate resilience, and adaptation through the Delta Adapts initiative.


Bay-Delta Science Conference

The 11th Annual Bay-Delta Science Conference took place from April 6 – 9.  Despite (or perhaps because of) the virtual format of the meeting, there were more attendees than ever before: 1697 unique logins compared to a previous high of 1300 in 2014 and an average of 1000 to 1200 total registrations in past conferences. 

Maggie Chrisman and Lynn Takata led the effort. Many folks from the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Science Program served in various capacities, such as moderating sessions and contributing talks, posters, and art.   Some staff organized sessions, such as Dylan Stern, who organized a featured special session and panel discussion on raising awareness and shifting the paradigm fostering diversity, inclusion, and equity in the Bay-Delta system.

Another notable session was the social science networking event, hosted by the Council’s Extension Specialist Dr. Jessica Rudnick.  It was quite successful with 54 participants in the nascent social science community of practice. The majority of participants were academics, representing universities in California as well as other parts of the country.  Many folks from agencies also attended, including the Department of Water Resources, the Sacramento Regional Water Quality Board, US Geological Survey, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, SFEI, San Francisco Exploratorium Museum, Puget Sound, partnership, and others.

There’s a lot of excitement around the idea of building a Bay-Delta social science community of practice,” said Dr. Larsen.  “Some of the next steps are going to be developing a meeting summary which outlines future directions and future deliverables from this group. Some of the concrete outcomes are that they plan to establish a steering committee, establish a listserv for communications, and a website that includes a directory of members.  They will convene once during the summer to talk about a community charter and some of the near-term tangible goals.  Some of those near-term projects would involve piloting Delta residents survey, establishing a seminar and brown bag series that might get adapted into a university course, and then starting to build some online resources and repositories of important social science work that has already been done in this area.”

Delta Lead Scientist office hours

Dr. Larsen launched the first Delta Lead Scientist office hours on April 15th.  Jeff Henderson from the Council’s planning division was the co-host.  The platform is an Instagram Live broadcast in which people type questions into the chat to be answered.  The first session built on the theme of the Bay-Delta Science Conference, building resilience through diversity in science.  There were over 25 participants, and it was easy to fill the 30 minutes; they could have used more time to get to all the questions.

I view this as a useful and frankly a very fun way to engage with the broader Delta science community that will become a monthly feature moving forward,” said Dr. Larsen.  “It’s going to take place at noon on the third Thursday of every month.  If you missed this one, but want to tune into future office hours sessions, you can do so by going to the Council’s Instagram page.

Science Action Workshop

The Science Actions Workshop will take place on July 13-14 from 9am to 12pm.  The workshop is an important milestone in the development of the 2022-2026 Science Action Agenda. At the workshop, participants will collaboratively discuss the top 65 Delta management questions identified through workshops last year and the assessment of the last Science Action Agenda, and then synthesize those needs and gaps into concrete actions to address in the next science action agenda. Registration and further details will be announced later this year.

This is a really important workshop to attend to make sure that what you really believe should be a science action over the next five years is represented in this document,” said Dr. Larsen.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email