Summary and Recommendations: We suggest that managers are approaching the limits of their ability to improve waterfowl harvest management, primarily because the information needed to make better decisions is being sacrificed by the current approach to setting regulations. We propose an actively adaptive management strategy in which regulatory decisions play a dominant role in reducing uncertainty about population dynamics. The proposed strategy recognizes 'value' in acquiring knowledge only to the extent that it contributes to the objective of optimizing harvests. To implement this strategy, managers will need: (1) a set of regulatory options, with possible constraints on their use; (2) quantifiable harvest management objectives; (3) a set of models that represent an array of meaningful hypotheses about the effects of regulations on populations; and (4) a measure of credibility (or likelihood) for each model, which can be updated regularly using information from waterfowl monitoring programs. Adaptive optimization is an iterative process in which the harvest-management policy converges over time to one that maximizes harvest under the most appropriate model. At each time step, an optimal regulatory decision is identified based on the state of the system and the model likelihoods. In the next time step, predicted population changes from the alternative models are compared with the actual changes provided by the monitoring program, The likelihoods are increased or decreased to the extent that predicted and actual population changes correspond. These updated likelihoods then are used in setting regulations in the next cycle and the process begins again. This iterative process produces the most informative regulations when uncertainty is prevalent and produces maximum sustainable yields as uncertainty is eliminated. We see no major obstacles to implementing this adaptive strategy, although there are a number of practical considerations. First and foremost, managers should assess the 'value' of learning. Only when there is a high degree of uncertainty about the effects of hunting regulations on population dynamics will the merit of our proposed strategy be evident. We suggest that this almost always will be true given our current understanding of the relationship between annual regulations, survival and population growth in waterfowl. Nonetheless, careful consideration should be given to formulating the set of alternative models. There is no value in distinguishing between models which differ in their mathematical formulation or biological realism, but which suggest similar harvest strategies. We suspect that 'mechanistic' models (i.e., those that attempt to capture the essence of biological processes) will make better candidates for model sets than so-called 'phenomenological' models. Assuming that all model sets include a good approximation of reality, learning rates will be dependent on the quality of monitoring programs. Fortunately, a variety of high-quality monitoring plans for many duck and goose populations of North America, when used with our adaptive approach, should provide new knowledge about population dynamics and response to hunting, and, thus, lead to improved management.
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Fifty-sixth Christmas Bird Count. 147. Southern Dorchester County, Md