The human dimensions of species prioritisation: a case study from Queensland, Australia

Kiatkoski Kim, Milena (2014) The human dimensions of species prioritisation: a case study from Queensland, Australia. PhD thesis, James Cook University.

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The current biodiversity crisis requires substantial investment to mitigate the adverse effects of humans on the natural environment. Nonetheless, there are limited resources available for environmental conservation. This lack of resources forces individuals and organisations with responsibilities for environmental protection and recovery to prioritise investments. Conservation planning provides tools and principles that can assist in the identification of priorities for environmental conservation. Recent studies have identified a significant gap between conservation planning and implementation. This gap is partially attributed to the technical focus of most conservation planning initiatives, despite the definition of priorities for environmental conservation being a social issue that involves the competing interests of stakeholders with different levels of power to influence decisions.

Much of the investment in conservation concerns the conservation of threatened species. Species conservation is a contested matter associated with significant political debate. Nonetheless, my analysis of the literature in conservation planning shows that species prioritisation is treated mainly as a technical issue. The literature largely is dominated by accounts of theoretical prioritisation methods aimed at identifying the most important biophysical variables on which to base prioritisation and the development of algorithms to define priorities. This literature is silent on the human dimensions of these processes despite their importance to the success or failure of environmental programs. Although most of the processes outlined in the literature reviewed have been adopted, there has been virtually no evaluation of species prioritisation processes.

This thesis aimed to clarify the influence of social and political factors on the uptake of prioritisation initiatives. I used an exploratory case study of an initiative that aimed to identify priorities for species conservation in Queensland, Australia – the Back on Track program (BoTp). The multi-faceted and innovative nature of this research required an inductive and interdisciplinary approach, which was reflected in my analytical framework, based on the interplay between data, literature and consultations with experts. Data collection included a mix of qualitative and quantitative social sciences methods.

I used a summative evaluation to address my first research question: "when species-based prioritisation methods are adopted by organisations, do the priorities identified by these methods inform decision-making?" My results suggested that the priorities identified by the case study prioritisation tool informed the investments of potential users. The BoTp plans were the main outputs of the program, and they were used as a reference to support funding applications and to inform organisation priorities. Nevertheless, the uptake of BoTp priorities was hindered by socio-political factors.

To answer my second research question, "what factors affect the uptake of the priorities identified via species-based prioritisation as measured by policy or financial investment?", I categorised the factors affecting the uptake of the BoTp into social-structural and agency-related aspects, reflecting the theoretical perspective from the political sciences that I adopted. I also explicitly incorporated such factors into my inductively developed analytical framework.

When governments adopt prioritisation methods, they have the option of using a combination of policy instruments to foster the uptake of resulting priorities by intended users. These instruments include: financial incentives, legislation, and knowledge transfer. I identified social-structural factors that affected: (1) the choice of policy instrument to support the BoTp and (2) the uptake of priorities identified by the BoTp. The Queensland government used knowledge transfer to foster the uptake of the identified priorities. I identified communication channels between the state government and intended users with the potential to assist knowledge transfer. Nevertheless, various structural factors influenced the choice of policy instrument and limited the use of the available communication channels to disseminate priorities. These structural factors included: the relative power of interest groups; political changes; the level of centralisation in decision-making; and the relative strength of alternative priorities.

The use of the BoTp information to prioritise investments was also compromised by agency-related factors. The scientific research literature presents growing evidence that perceptions of stakeholder engagement in conservation planning and implementation can affect the outcomes of planning processes. The literature also presents normative principles that can guide the governance of environmental decision-making. I asked potential users of the BoTp information about their perceptions of normative governance principles in relation to the decision of priorities for biodiversity conservation in Queensland and the BoTp. This process revealed that different stakeholders had different interpretations of species prioritisation: ranging from a deliberative process to define priorities in biodiversity conservation, to a technical, expert-based process. Inclusiveness was perceived as the most important normative principle.

I then identified the perceived limitations of the technical-scientific quality of the BoTp process and its outcomes in terms of credibility and salience. Credibility was affected by concerns related to the use of expert judgement (rather than empirical evidence) to assess species, the lack of involvement of key experts in the planning process and the lack of confidence in the information supporting prioritisation. Importantly, even interviewees' perceptions of the technical aspects of conservation planning were socio-political in nature. For example, perceptions of credibility and salience were related to inclusiveness and the transparency of the decision-making process.

My third research question asked: "how can conservation organisations improve species-based prioritisation to address the barriers to uptake?" I developed a guide to social assessment as part of the development of conservation planning initiatives. Conservation planners can contribute to addressing the biodiversity crisis by designing prioritisation tools that provide transparent and defensible information, with attention to normative and structural factors. Such tools can then be used to inform broader public debates on the definition of priorities for conservation and our inheritance to future generations.

Item ID: 41005
Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Keywords: biodiversity conservation; biodiversity; conservation; environment policy; environmental protection; government policy; natural resource management; Queensland; species diversity; wildlife conservation
Date Deposited: 29 Oct 2015 02:22
FoR Codes: 16 STUDIES IN HUMAN SOCIETY > 1605 Policy and Administration > 160507 Environment Policy @ 34%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050209 Natural Resource Management @ 33%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050202 Conservation and Biodiversity @ 33%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9606 Environmental and Natural Resource Evaluation > 960605 Institutional Arrangements for Environmental Protection @ 50%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9607 Environmental Policy, Legislation and Standards > 960799 Environmental Policy, Legislation and Standards not elsewhere classified @ 50%
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