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Ecological Benchmarks

Ecological benchmarks are reference sites for the detection of change in ecosystems in the presence of human activity, reference sites for restoration, and classrooms for understanding ecosystem processes and the natural state and range of variation of biotic communities and ecosystems.

BEACONs research to date has largely focused on the identification of ecological benchmarks, in particular, system-level benchmarks. Ecological benchmarks are one element of the Conservation Matrix Model.


System-level benchmarks are ecologically intact areas that are representative of natural environmental variation, including vegetation communities and productivity gradients and are sufficiently large to maintain key ecological processes and support natural ecosystem dynamics.


As controls within an adaptive management framework, benchmarks serve as reference sites for the detection of change in ecosystem composition and function (i.e., the suite of organisms and biological and physical processes characteristic of natural systems) due to human activities. In the absence of such controls, we could fail to detect important changes in systems related to development activities; for example, if they are masked by natural fluctuations. Conversely, we could wrongly attribute natural variations to development activities. System-level benchmarks therefore provide the necessary controls for resource management experiments, and a foundation for identifying sustainable activities.

Benchmark Design

Benchmark design is based on processes that shape ecological systems at large spatial extents and over relatively long-time frames. These processes can be regarded as "flows" of matter, energy, organisms, or of events such as fire. The spatial and temporal distributions of these flows guide the size, condition, and configuration of potential benchmark sites. Unlike conventional approaches to the design of conservation areas, this method is not driven by representation targets, which are often plagued with uncertainty. Rather, representation becomes an additional criterion for the evaluation and selection of benchmark areas.

Step 1: A suite of candidate benchmark areas is constructed a priori based on landscape condition, natural disturbance, and hydrologic connectivity.

Landscape Condition - Benchmarks are designed to be intact with little or no human disturbance. Intact implies that all of the critical ecosystem components are present and structured in such a way that processes function within their natural range of variation, unimpaired by human disturbance. We use Global Forest Watch Canada's Intact Forest Landscapes to measure intactness.

Natural Disturbance - Benchmarks are designed to be of sufficient size to maintain large-scale ecological processes and support natural ecosystem dynamics. Size is dependent on the ecological processes and ecosystem dynamics of the planning area. We delineate size based on the natural disturbance regime. This serves to maintain internal recolonization sources and structure created by disturbance at the species, ecosystem, and landscape scales. We use the estimated maximum fire size, derived from the Fire Regionalization study.

Hydrologic Connectivity - Benchmarks are designed to integrate aquatic and terrestrial conservation planning. Catchments are used as building blocks. A software construction algorithm, Benchmark Builder, aggregates catchments along stream networks to capture both terrestrial and hydrologic connectivity which facilitates the flow of nutrients and organisms to support both ecological and evolutionary processes. The algorithm aggregates catchments such that headwaters are prioritized.

Step 2: The candidate benchmarks undergo a post-hoc evaluation to determine which areas best suit the conservation objectives. Here, additional variables for processes, species, and environmental variation can be applied such as gross primary productivity, climate indices, land cover, and species distributions. We use the software tool Ranker, to rank candidate benchmarks based on their representation of biophysical attributes.

Step 3: An additional step includes dynamic modeling to evaluate the probability of maintaining conservation objectives through time. For this, we use CONSERV, a spatially dynamic landscape simulation software tool.

Boreal-Wide Identification of System-Level Benchmarks

The identification of candidate system-level benchmarks across the boreal region of Canada is presently underway. This includes an evaluation of existing protected areas and their ability to function as ecological benchmarks.



Feb 14 2018
Northwest Boreal Benchmark Analysis Released

Nov 20 2017
BEACONs' Webinar Tuesday Nov 28

Jul 24 2017
BEACONs' Website - New content coming soon!

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