Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is the acquisition of additional knowledge and the utilization of that information in modifying programs and practices so as to better achieve management goals.” 
Lindenmayer D.B. and J.F. Franklin. 2002. Conserving forest biodiversity. Island Press, Washington.

“If you cannot respond to what you have learned, you really have not learned at all.”
Hilborn, R. 1992. Can fisheries agencies learn from experience? Fisheries 17:6-14.

The phrase “learning by doing” is commonly associated with the concept of adaptive management.  Within this approach, there is explicit acknowledgement that because environmental conditions change and knowledge is limited, management policies and plans are only a best guess with uncertain outcomes.

A central premise of the adaptive management approach is that management activities are a learning tool to gain knowledge.  In a more ‘formal’ adaptive management approach, management activities can be implemented as part of a rigorous, controlled experimental program.  While this is often the best way to maximize knowledge, such experiments can be expensive.  Learning can also come from the experience of managers and other specialists and from other non-experimental forms of research, such as studies investigating past responses to forest harvesting.  In particular, learning from monitoring is an essential component of any adaptive management approach so that management activities can be assessed for their effectiveness.  Strategies that do not work can be identified so that management can be revised or ‘adapted’ to be more successful at meeting objectives.1-4

Four key elements of adaptive management:

  1. Acknowledgement that the outcome of management policies, plans and actions are uncertain;
  2. Management policies, plans and actions are testable hypotheses;
  3. Learning is gained through testing these hypotheses either formally through experiments or informally through the experiences of specialists;
  4. Management policies, plans and actions are changed as a result of new learning.5

The adaptive management approach can be viewed as a cyclical process in which management plans are implemented and then monitored for effectiveness.  Monitoring data is analyzed to determine ways to improve the plans.  These are then incorporated into the management plans, and the process begins again.


The adaptive management approach has become widely accepted and integrated into policy.  However, there are only a few cases where its implementation has reached an evaluation stage.  These reveal that most challenges in applying the adaptive management approach are similar to those regarding ecosystem management.  Barriers lie in the socio-political arena and are not due to lack of scientific knowledge or capability.  The need for certainty in the amount of forests that can be harvested clashes with the continuous change required by the adaptive management approach.  Another challenge arises from a resistance to change of management practices after previous methods have been found lacking.  Since the outcomes of new approaches are uncertain, managers and other practitioners may be resistant to try something new if they perceive that they may be held responsible for any failures.4,6,7.8

1Holling, C.S. (ed). 1978. Adaptive environmental assessment and management. John Wiley, New York, USA.
2Walters, C. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. MacMillan, New York, USA.
3Johnson, B.L. 1999. The role of adaptive management as an operational approach for resource management agencies. Conservation Ecology 3(2):8.
4Lindenmayer, D.B. and J.F. Frankline. 2002. Conserving forest biodiversity. Island Presee, Washington.
5Davis, L., S.K.N. Johnson, P.S. Bettinger and T.E. Howard. 2001. Forest management to sustain ecological, economic and social values. 4th edition. New York, McGraw-Hill.
6Johnson, B.L. 1999. Introduction to the special feature: adaptive management – scientificially sound, socially challenged? Conservation Ecology 3(1):10.
7Walters, C. 1997. Challenges in adaptive management of riparian and coastal ecosystems. Conservation Ecology 1(2):1.
8Gray, A.N. 2000. Adaptive ecosystem management in the pacific northwest: a case study of coastal Oregon. Conservation Ecology 4(2):6.