An introduction to adaptive wildlife management

An introduction to adaptive wildlife management

Like wildlife management itself, sustainability is not a goal, but a process. Instead of making the same mistakes over and over again, by re-evaluating our actions, we can learn from our mistakes and improve our methods.

The principles of wildlife management

Most of us want to fulfil the potential of our land in regards to the quality and quantity of game and hunting opportunities but, busy lot that we are, with a minimum amount of effort.

So how do we accomplish this? And where should we start when managing our game animals?

First of all we need to look at the principles of wildlife management.

Wildlife management, as part of natural resource management, differs from either agriculture or forestry as it has its own requirements, challenges and needs.

This may seem obvious, but these differences are often not taken into account or even forgotten when managing land.

The specificities of wildlife management include:

  • The “subjects” of wildlife management are the wildlife populations and their habitat.
  • Wildlife populations are natural resources that are renewed every year and can and should be utilized long-term and wisely (sustainable hunting).
  • The habitats (meadow, forest, wetland) are not constant; the changes that occur from time to time are most influenced by the continuation of agriculture and forestry; the task of the game manager is to minimize the negative effects of these changes or intervene for the sake of the game (game protection, managing agricultural fields for feeding game (cover crops), supplementary winter feeding, etc.)


  • We don’t know exactly how many animals live on the land.
  • Animals disperse and stay in the area we rent/manage only for a certain period of the year (the borders of our hunting grounds do not coincide with the distribution area of the populations).

The rules and tasks of wildlife management are determined (in most cases) by law (think about Hunting or Game Acts and implementation regulations, e.g. quotas). Hunting laws differ per country but have similar rules most of the time. Overall, these laws stress the right of the game as opposed to the right of the hunter.

The common legislation between European countries are the international environmental conventions and the nature directives (Birds Directive and Habitats Directive). These put restrictions on the use of hunting methods and tools, huntable species, their daily harvest and certain types of hunts on hunting grounds. Overall, they provide a framework for countries to follow. The goal of these restrictions is to provide protection for wildlife populations.

These principles of wildlife management provide a foundation for our current management system.

Traditional wildlife management

In the past, when managing wildlife, managers mostly focused on a single problem or a single goal, and therefore failed to see or work within the full complexity of the system. Consequently, when complex problems arose, managers failed to tackle them.

Traditional wildlife management is not flexible enough and is based on personal experience and received wisdom. Actually, many game managers tried to maintain the system in one optimal state, with as little variation as possible.

Traditional wildlife management is not applicable to large populations and large areas. It works locally and solves very simple and straightforward issues. It was directed towards a single species or goal and resulted in a reduced ability to respond to changes in the system. 

However, this system worked well as long as the management actions and the basic structure of the system remained constant. Changes in the way of managing species were not made.

Here, we don’t even talk about research and science.

Consequently, adaptive wildlife management started to emerge when people noticed that the then current system was not working (and when there were successes, that these were most probably fortuitous) and that we can no longer separate research and management anymore as two different aspects.

An introduction to adaptive wildlife management

Wildlife management is about decision-making. 

In order to make the right decisions and take the appropriate actions to achieve the set management objectives, we need to take into consideration science (knowledge about wildlife and its environment) and human dimensions (communication, education and stakeholder engagement). 

“Decisions require the integration of science with values, because in the end, any decision is an attempt to achieve some future condition” (Keeney, 1996). 

When we take a look at adaptive wildlife management, we combine structured decision-making and learning. It is a system of stepwise processes with feedback and not an independent, straightforward event. 

This feedback is created from learning and understanding the effects of management on wildlife populations, habitats and human dimensions. Information needs to be collected continuously and this is used to continuously improve biological understanding and to inform future decision-making. 

Having said this, we can achieve this by starting to base our management on data and following the changes of the game populations. Without systematic, rigorous monitoring and the assessment of management actions, we cannot learn from our mistakes after each management action, which is the essence of adaptive management.

The steps of adaptive wildlife management

Adaptive management is a process that can be used for any type of natural resource management. Focusing on game management, it would look like this:

1. Determination of goals – either short term or long term

This means estimating the population at the beginning of spring (end of February) and based on this, assessing the goal we want to achieve with the given species

2. Enumeration of the available assets – which involves assessing the resources and identifying the weaknesses and strengths in a functioning management system

This focuses on knowing the habitat and where it can be improved or make changes to benefit the given species (habitat management; see article about this topic here LINK #3)

3. Determination of the possible changes/directions – which involves weighing the pros and cons of the various management actions

4. Decision-making – for which we have to be reasonable and patient

This includes setting up a harvest plan for the year

5. Implementation or realization – which means executing the tasks consistently

Starting to record harvest data during the hunting season and estimating the (spring) population again after the harvest

6. Evaluation of the results – in order to keep the well-established elements and exclude the bad or non-functioning elements

Evaluating the management plan and making changes where needed


In addition, monitoring can be considered the penultimate step, however, as monitoring should be done continuously, we should rather see it as a whole than an independant step (see the article about monitoring and the importance of it here LINK #2).

Effective wildlife management will be achieved when the specific purpose(s) of managing the stock is achieved through the use of available tools, knowledge and experience in order to influence successful management and processes.

Or to put it differently: “Increased effectiveness may be achieved through more efficient short-term management or, perhaps more importantly, by avoiding costly catastrophes, repeated management failures, and management by litigation.” (Johnson, 1999)

Overall, we are all trying to spend as little time, money and energy as possible. If we want to take these things into consideration, the goals need to be SMART:

  • Specific or precise – the goals need to be determined and known precisely by the manager(s)
  • Measurable – the goals need to be measured with numbers, if not, you probably won’t achieve your goals
  • Attainable – the goals need to be realized in biological and financial point of view
  • Related or interconnected – we usually have multiple, short-term and long-term goals; these need to be in accordance with each other so the realization of the goals will be easier. Conflicting goals can only be achieved at the expense of each other.
  • Trackable – the measurability and trackability are closely connected; the measurements make it possible for us to constantly monitor the achievements of the goals and to determine the establishments our goals.  

We simply cannot overlook these aspects, as this will result in random decision-making which can lead to hunting grounds in poor conditions, like land without game or deprived habitats, which eventually will lead to no game at all.

What does this mean for us?

Having discussed the theoretical part, let’s move on to the practical part. This can be divided in three steps.

Step 1 – Assess what we have

When we have a piece of land, the first step is to know which game species we have and how much.

See our article about the population estimation methods and monitoring here (article #2 LINK).

However, we do not only estimate and monitor the changes in the population size, but we can also measure the characteristics of individuals (bio-indicators) and the effects of herbivores on the habitat (plant communities). By closely monitoring this information, we will be able to overview and monitor the quality and health of our game populations.

In order to collect a larger and more reliable amount of data, hunters should be stimulated to be involved in the data collection as well. 

It is also important to note that nature follows a different calendar than what we use. The “year of wildlife management” starts when nature renews itself, in spring, which we note as the first day of March and thus ends the last day of February. Consequently, the hunting season starts after the reproduction period and finishes at the end of the winter. Hence we don’t cause any damage to the population.

Step 2 – Setting up goals and plans

The second step would be to set up a goal. We can either:

  • Increase the population – when we harvest less animals than the recruitment (newly raised offspring) 
  • Decrease the population – when we harvest more than the recruitment (newly raised offspring)
  • Keeping the population stable – when the annual harvest is the same amount as the recruitment (newly raised offspring) 
  • Do nothing and protect/preserve the population (passive management) – monitoring in this case should still be executed!

However, we have to keep in mind that not only the newly raised offspring adds to the population size, but the immigration of animals as well. The same goes for the deaths and emigration of animals, which decreases the population size in a given area.

Age distribution and sex ratio

Depending on the status/trend of the population and our newly set up goal, we can set up the harvest plan. In a harvest plan we need to take into account the sex ratio of a species and the age distribution of the population as well.

In the harvest planning of big game species, we need to pay attention to that for the given species, more than 10-30% of female individuals than males (including the young individuals) need to be culled. Because this way we use the amount that would have died of natural causes or would have emigrated. 

When we wish to increase the population size, we cull less females, and more female individuals when we want to decrease the population size.

In addition, when we take into account the age distribution of big game species within a harvest, this should be carefully planned as well. In the total hunting bag of the season, there should be 50-60% of young male individuals, 20-35% middle-aged male individuals and not more than 5-10% old male individuals. This goes for deer only as we can easily guess their age based on their antlers and are living mostly solitary as opposed to female deer, which live in (family) herds. Also, older females are the leader of the herd. We should not cull these individuals, as the hierarchy and the social structure of the herd will be disturbed. 

Where the managers do not take into account these rates, or cull more than necessary, it will definitely capsize the age distribution and sex ratio in a population.

Current mistakes in big game management are also the underestimation of the reproductive potential (the raised offspring), this way there are more young individuals in the population than needed and causes the population to be younger (and therefore, lose its “balance”). 

In small game management, the age distribution regulations do not have any practical meaning, that’s why we don’t bother with this when managing them.

Lastly, it is important that the game manager is aware of the (trophy) quality of the game, the age distribution, and sex ratio that he/she wants to achieve and harvest, because if the culling is done randomly, the structure of the population cannot be properly shaped.

Step 3 – Execute and report

The last step should take place at the end of the wildlife management year (February), when we write a report (which can be done with HAMS). 

This report should include:

  • The number of shot animals (broken down according to species and sex)
  • Within this the rate of hunters who bought the hunts or were guests (as opposed to club members)
  • Number of live captured animals
  • The mortality rate per species
  • The amount of game (meat) sold
  • The amount of game (meat) used per hunter
  • The most important financial information (income, outcome, game damage repayment, etc.)

The end result

We should always work towards the unification of at least some management activities. This should also happen in collaboration with other disciplines (agriculture, forestry, fishery, etc). This integrated approach allows us to use the land’s resources sustainably and optimally.

Like wildlife management itself, sustainability is not a goal, but a process. Instead of making the same mistakes over and over again, by re-evaluating our actions, we can learn from our mistakes and improve our methods.

As is said about wildlife management:

“The only way for wildlife professionals to stay current and relevant in a changing socio-cultural environment is through continual learning.”

(Krausman & Chain, 2013)

If we can reach this way of thinking, then the conservation of wildlife will strengthen and result in more healthy and well-managed environments, including thriving, good quality game populations.

Ultimately, this should be our common goal.

Sources and further readings:

  • Johnson, B. L. 1999. The role of adaptive management as an operational approach for resource management agencies. Conservation Ecology 3(2): 8. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol3/iss2/art8/ 
  • Keeney. R. L.1996. Value-focused thinking: a path to creative decision-making. Harvard University Press. Cambridge. Massachusetts. USA
  • Paul R. Krausman and James W. Cain. 2013. Wildlife Management and Conservation: Contemporary Principles and Practices 3rd Edition. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland

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