About Science Arbitration

Science arbitration involves evaluating the science relevant to an issue and providing the results to decision-makers without commenting on what the outcome of the decision should be. There is a great need for science arbitration as decision-makers often hear different interpretations of the available science from stakeholders with varied interests, and in this area of specialization lack sufficient expertise to evaluate the science themselves. The AOS, due to the expertise of its members, is in a unique position to provide objective syntheses and assessments of current science relevant to issues in avian conservation, and the Conservation Committee has engaged in this activity for several decades. Science arbitration projects typically take the form of assembling a panel of ornithologists who have appropriate expertise to evaluate the science, but no vested interest in the decision to which the science relates. In addition to reviewing literature, the panels often hold meetings at which scientists involved in the issue in question present their relevant research, and when appropriate visit field sites. Some science arbitrations projects are initiated in response to requests to AOS leadership from decision-makers, typically government agencies or NGOs, and thus are termed Sponsored Reviews. The products of Sponsored Reviews consist of a report produced by the panel that is reviewed and approved by the AOS and submitted to the sponsor. In most cases an article based on the report is subsequently published in one of the Society’s journals. For more on science arbitration by the AOS see this article in Ornithological Applications

The AOS also occasionally initiates reviews of science internally in response to an emerging issue in avian conservation. These proactive projects are proposed by the Conservation Committee, sometimes in response to a proposal from a group of AOS members, and submitted to AOS leadership for approval. Such projects are intended to provide syntheses and assessments of relevant science as a resource for decision-makers, in advance of any particular decision. For these projects, the panels assembled typically include ornithologists involved in research related to the issue or species that is the topic of the project, and the panel relies on its own expertise to review and synthesize relevant science rather than holding meetings to hear presentations from others or visiting field sites. These panels are termed Conservation Working Groups, and they produce white papers that often result in a publication.

Beach-nesting birds and turtles at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina

This project was initiated in 2016 in response to a request from the National Park Service. The panel included AOS members Jeff Walters (chair), Ashley Dayer, Stephen Dinsmore, Cheri Gratto-Trevor, and Erica Nol, as well as Lou Browning (an expert on the human and natural history of North Carolina’s Outer Banks), Matthew Godfrey (a sea turtle expert), and Stanley Riggs (an expert on barrier island geomorphology and dynamics). The panel’s charge was to review current knowledge of the ecology, population dynamics, and habitat needs of beach-nesting bird and turtle species at Cape Hatteras National Seashore and prepare a written report that (1) synthesizes the relevant scientific knowledge about the abiotic and biotic factors that may affect the species’ use of Seashore habitats and their productivity; (2) assesses the roles and relative importance of these abiotic and biotic factors in determining the species’ use of Seashore habitat and their productivity; (3) assesses the reasonableness of the Seashore’s management targets, a.k.a. desired future conditions for the species; and (4) provides conclusions about key uncertainties and scientific monitoring and research needs that would assist the Seashore in reaching management objectives through adaptive management. The panel has completed and submitted its report and is currently writing an article to be published in Ornithological Applications.

Past Sponsored Reviews

Recovery of California Condors

This project was initiated in 2006 in response to a request from Audubon California. The panel included Jeff Walters (chair), Scott Derrickson, Michael Fry, Susan Haig, John Marzluff, and Joe Wunderle. The panel’s charge was to (1) collect, review, and synthesize knowledge and experience about condor reproduction, rearing, foraging, mortality, and other aspects of the species’ life history and ecology with the goal of characterizing the relative degrees of consensus and uncertainty about each; (2) assess and prioritize the relative importance of physiological, behavioral, and ecological factors in terms of their potential to limit the species’ recovery and sustainability; (3) recommend scientific research, including controlled field experiments and population dynamics modeling, needed to resolve or bound remaining key uncertainties about factors affecting the condor’s recovery; (4) review key operational aspects of the recovery program and recommend changes needed to improve the effectiveness, value, quality, and validity of the practices employed and the data generated by research and monitoring; (5) assess the organizational and funding structure and the management function of the recovery program and the California Condor Recovery Team, and to recommend changes needed to improve the program’s overall effectiveness and value; and (6) on the basis of all of the above, to reassess the program’s fundamental goals and recommend needed changes. The panel submitted its report in 2008 and published an article based on the report in Ornithology in 2010. The most important conclusion reached by the panel was that recovery of the condor in the wild was being limited primarily by lead poisoning resulting from feeding on carcasses contaminated by lead ammunition.

Management of Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows in the Everglades 

This project was initiated in 1998 in response to a request from the Science Coordination Team of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force/Working Group, an organization that was playing a lead role in the restoration of the Everglades. The panel included Jeff Walters (chair), Steve Beissinger, John Fitzpatrick, Russ Greenberg, Jim Nichols, Ronald Pulliam, and Dave Winkler. In the aftermath of a precipitous and rapid decline of the largest population of the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, the Panel was charged with scrutinizing the evidence for the existence and probable causes of global population decline in this subspecies, evaluating proposed management actions, and suggesting further research necessary to manage the remaining populations to maximize their chances of long-term persistence. The panel submitted its report in 2000 and published an article in Ornithology based on the report that same year. The most important conclusion reached by the panel was that the alteration of the distribution of flow of water in the southern Everglades resulting from human activity was the greatest threat to the continued existence of the sparrow.

Past Conservation Working Groups

Conservation of grassland birds

This project was initiated internally in 2003 in response to emerging evidence of major declines of grassland birds. The panel included Robert Askins, Felipe Chávez-Ramírez, Brenda C. Dale, Carola Haas, James Herkert, Fritz Knopf, and Peter Vickery. The panel published its report as an Ornithological Monograph in 2007. The panel reviewed existing knowledge of the habitat needs of bird species in six types of grassland in North America, with a focus on the ecological drivers shaping those habitats, and described management actions that could promote the persistence and recovery of populations of grassland birds.

Impact of Double-crested Cormorants on fisheries

This project was initiated internally in 2001 in response to human-cormorant conflicts related to commercial and recreational fishing generally, and proposed depredation orders that would allow shooting of Double-crested Cormorants specifically. The panel included Michael Reed (chair), Douglas Causey, Jeremy Hatch, Fred Cooke, and Larry Crowder (a fish population biology expert). The panel issued its report in 2005 as a review of the Environmental Impact Statement for the depredation order proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its most important conclusions were that there was no good evidence that cormorants cause significant fisheries problems except at aquaculture and hatchery sites, and that the solutions proposed, primarily increased take of cormorants, would likely be ineffective at aquaculture and hatchery sites yet potentially destructive to continental cormorant populations.

Conservation of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers

This project was, like a Sponsored Review, initiated in response to a request, but was executed as a Conservation Working Group. It was initiated in 1983 in response to a request from Warren King of the United States Section of the International Council for Bird Preservation to assess and synthesize the science relevant to the recovery of the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, which was viewed at the time as one of the most challenging and controversial issues in applied ornithology. The panel included Dave Ligon (chair), Peter Stacey, Richard Conner, Carl Bock, and Curt Adkisson, and its charge was to review the status of the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker, to evaluate the conservation and management practices impinging on the welfare of this species, and to further the AOS’s interest in providing scientific advice and suggestions to managers of threatened and endangered species of birds. The panel published its findings in Ornithology in 1986, concluding that the Recovery Plan for the species failed to base management recommendations on the best available science and thus was at odds with the current understanding of the biology of the species. The panel, which had been appointed as a subcommittee of the Conservation Committee, continued its work following this publication, reconstituted to include Dave Ligon (chair), W. Baker, Richard Conner, Jerome Jackson, Fran James, Craig Rudolph, Peter Stacey, and Jeff Walters. The panel published a second article in Ornithology in 1991 that drew attention to widespread population declines occurring under the management advocated in the Recovery Plan, and to new science that suggested new management strategies.

Contact the Committee 

Anna Chalfoun, Conservation Committee co-chair: achalfou@uwyo.edu
Jeff Walters, Conservation Committee co-chair: jrwalt@vt.edu