Empirical evaluation of the conceptual model underpinning a regional aquatic long-term monitoring program using causal modelling

Ecological Indicators

ORCID iD , , ORCID iD , , , and ORCID iD



Conceptual models are an integral facet of long-term monitoring programs. Proposed linkages between drivers, stressors, and ecological indicators are identified within the conceptual model of most mandated programs. We empirically evaluate a conceptual model developed for a regional aquatic and riparian monitoring program using causal models (i.e., Bayesian path analysis). We assess whether data gathered for regional status and trend estimation can also provide insights on why a stream may deviate from reference conditions. We target the hypothesized causal pathways for how anthropogenic drivers of road density, percent grazing, and percent forest within a catchment affect instream biological condition. We found instream temperature and fine sediments in arid sites and only fine sediments in mesic sites accounted for a significant portion of the maximum possible variation explainable in biological condition among managed sites. However, the biological significance of the direct effects of anthropogenic drivers on instream temperature and fine sediments were minimal or not detected. Consequently, there was weak to no biological support for causal pathways related to anthropogenic drivers’ impact on biological condition. With weak biological and statistical effect sizes, ignoring environmental contextual variables and covariates that explain natural heterogeneity would have resulted in no evidence of human impacts on biological integrity in some instances. For programs targeting the effects of anthropogenic activities, it is imperative to identify both land use practices and mechanisms that have led to degraded conditions (i.e., moving beyond simple status and trend estimation). Our empirical evaluation of the conceptual model underpinning the long-term monitoring program provided an opportunity for learning and, consequently, we discuss survey design elements that require modification to achieve question driven monitoring, a necessary step in the practice of adaptive monitoring. We suspect our situation is not unique and many programs may suffer from the same inferential disconnect. Commonly, the survey design is optimized for robust estimates of regional status and trend detection and not necessarily to provide statistical inferences on the causal mechanisms outlined in the conceptual model, even though these relationships are typically used to justify and promote the long-term monitoring of a chosen ecological indicator. Our application demonstrates a process for empirical evaluation of conceptual models and exemplifies the need for such interim assessments in order for programs to evolve and persist.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
Empirical evaluation of the conceptual model underpinning a regional aquatic long-term monitoring program using causal modelling
Series title:
Ecological Indicators
Year Published:
Contributing office(s):
Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
16 p.
First page:
Last page:
United States
California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming
Other Geospatial:
Interior Columbia River Basin, Upper Missouri River Basin
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):