Decision-Making Triggers in Adaptive Management

Martin A. Nie, Courtney A. Schultz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

52 Scopus citations


We analyzed whether decision-making triggers increase accountability of adaptive-management plans. Triggers are prenegotiated commitments in an adaptive-management plan that specify what actions are to be taken and when on the basis of information obtained from monitoring. Triggers improve certainty that particular actions will be taken by agencies in the future. We conducted an in-depth, qualitative review of the political and legal contexts of adaptive management and its application by U.S. federal agencies. Agencies must satisfy the judiciary that adaptive-management plans meet substantive legal standards and comply with the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act. We examined 3 cases in which triggers were used in adaptive-management plans: salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) in the Columbia River, oil and gas development by the Bureau of Land Management, and a habitat conservation plan under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. In all the cases, key aspects of adaptive management, including controls and preidentified feedback loops, were not incorporated in the plans. Monitoring and triggered mitigation actions were limited in their enforceability, which was contingent on several factors, including which laws applied in each case and the degree of specificity in how triggers were written into plans. Other controversial aspects of these plans revolved around who designed, conducted, interpreted, and funded monitoring programs. Additional contentious issues were the level of precaution associated with trigger mechanisms and the definition of ecological baselines used as points of comparison. Despite these challenges, triggers can be used to increase accountability, by predefining points at which an adaptive management plan will be revisited and reevaluated, and thus improve the application of adaptive management in its complicated political and legal context.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1137-1144
Number of pages8
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2012


  • Endangered Species Act
  • Monitoring
  • National Environmental Policy Act
  • Planning


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