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Using expert knowledge to support Endangered Species Act decision-making for data-deficient species

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Many questions relevant to conservation decision-making are characterized by extreme uncertainty due to lack of empirical data and complexity of the underlying ecologic processes, leading to a rapid increase in the use of structured protocols to elicit expert knowledge. Published ecologic applications often employ a modified Delphi method, where experts provide judgments anonymously and mathematical aggregation techniques are used to combine judgments. The Sheffield elicitation framework (SHELF) differs in its behavioral approach to synthesizing individual judgments into a fully specified probability distribution for an unknown quantity. We used the SHELF protocol remotely to assess extinction risk of three subterranean aquatic species that are being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. We provided experts an empirical threat assessment for each known locality over a video conference and recorded judgments on the probability of population persistence over four generations with online submission forms and R-shiny apps available through the SHELF package. Despite large uncertainty for all populations, there were key differences between species’ risk of extirpation based on spatial variation in dominant threats, local land use and management practices, and species’ microhabitat. The resulting probability distributions provided decision makers with a full picture of uncertainty that was consistent with the probabilistic nature of risk assessments. Discussion among experts during SHELF's behavioral aggregation stage clearly documented dominant threats (e.g., development, timber harvest, animal agriculture, and cave visitation) and their interactions with local cave geology and species’ habitat. Our virtual implementation of the SHELF protocol demonstrated the flexibility of the approach for conservation applications operating on budgets and time lines that can limit in-person meetings of geographically dispersed experts.




Fitzgerald, D. B., Smith, D. R., Culver, D. C., Feller, D., Fong, D. W., Hajenga, J., … Young, J. A. (2021). Using expert knowledge to support Endangered Species Act decision-making for data-deficient species. Conservation Biology.

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