Many conservation planning frameworks rely on the assumption that one should prioritize locations for management actions based on the highest predicted conservation value (i.e., abundance, occupancy). This strategy may underperform relative to the expected outcome if one is working with a limited budget or the predicted responses are uncertain. Yet, cost and tolerance to uncertainty rarely become part of species management plans. We used field data and predictive models to simulate a decision problem involving western burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) using prairie dog colonies (Cynomys ludovicianus) in western Nebraska. We considered 2 species management strategies: one maximized abundance and the other maximized abundance in a cost-efficient way. We then used heuristic decision algorithms to compare the 2 strategies in terms of how well they met a hypothetical conservation objective. Finally, we performed an info-gap decision analysis to determine how these strategies performed under different budget constraints and uncertainty about owl response. Our results suggested that when budgets were sufficient to manage all sites, the maximizing strategy was optimal and suggested investing more in expensive actions. This pattern persisted for restricted budgets up to approximately 50% of the sufficient budget. Below this budget, the cost-efficient strategy was optimal and suggested investing in cheaper actions. When uncertainty in the expected responses was introduced, the strategy that maximized abundance remained robust under a sufficient budget. Reducing the budget induced a slight trade-off between expected performance and robustness, which suggested that the most robust strategy depended both on one's budget and tolerance to uncertainty. Our results suggest that wildlife managers should explicitly account for budget limitations and be realistic about their expected levels of performance.
Additional publication details
On the role of budget sufficiency, cost efficiency, and uncertainty in species management