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For months, David Wilcove peppered the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) with letters protesting the agency's plans to save the threatened Utah prairie dog. Wilcove, a conservation biologist, and his colleagues at Environmental Defense in Washington, D.C., argued that FWS was putting too much emphasis on protecting prairie dogs on federal lands, when most of the animals now live on private land and cannot be relocated easily.

Conservation biologists clearly want to influence policy. After 15 years of frustration, practitioners are beginning to learn the fine art of making a difference

In the midst of this typical conservation battle--scientist-advocates on one side, resource managers on the other--Wilcove made an atypical move. Conceding that his organization and the FWS were both shooting from the hip, making cases based on skimpy data, he flew a team from Princeton University to Utah last November to meet with agency managers and Environmental Defense officials. The Princeton group, led by biologist Andrew Dobson, began working up what the cash-strapped FWS could not afford to do on its own: a model on how various factors, from climate to disease epidemics, would affect Utah prairie dogs. "When the study is done this spring, we'll all have a better blueprint for determining the relative importance of public and private lands," Wilcove says.

That kind of cooperation is a novel way to get more science into resource management decisions. Week in and week out, managers dictate which sections of forest to sell to logging companies, which wetlands to pave over for houses, and which prairies to till into pastures. Such decisions often are justified by price tag or politics, but it's rare that more than lip service is paid to science. Part of the problem is that many scientists are hesitant, or unable, to participate in the process. "Academics don't know how to affect policy, and they don't communicate with managers very well," says Michael Soulé, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The disconnect between science and management is disconcerting to researchers who launched the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) in 1985. "Our mission was to provide the scientific tools and ideas to protect nature," says Soulé, who served as SCB's first president. Fifteen years later, however, he and others say that scientists are still struggling to influence policy decisions. "The nuts and bolts of conservation biology just aren't working," says Barry Noon, a biologist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Alarmed by their own irrelevance, conservation biologists are now taking steps to make their voices heard. While many ecologists agonize over whether to weigh in on policy issues ( see previous story), conservation biologists are taking the offensive. SCB plans to unveil a magazine designed for resource managers that's packed with case studies and the latest biology. Meanwhile, a new program sponsored by The Nature Conservancy in Arlington, Virginia, plans to put some 50 biology postdocs into the field for 2 years at a time to learn from resource managers. And many seasoned conservation biologists are teaming up with resource managers to rethink endangered species recovery plans, evaluate marine parks, or simply get a dialogue going.

Different worlds. Like the Grand Canyon, the gulf between scientists and managers is deep and has been around a while. That's partly due to the mandate of many agencies to help the private sector access and exploit natural resources. The Forest Service, for example, clears the way for timber sales, the Department of Agriculture pushes the conversion of wild lands into agricultural fields, and the National Park Service establishes campsites and other services for tourists at scenic destinations. Ecologists, starting with Aldo Leopold, entered the scene in the 1930s and grew increasingly vocal in the 1960s. "That's when people started pushing for ecosystem management," says Jack Oelfke, a resource manager at Isle Royale National Park in Houghton, Michigan.

But this message is not sinking in, observers say. As a case in point, Noon, graduate student Jennifer Blakesley, and their colleagues have spent the last decade capturing and marking spotted owls in California's Lassen National Forest. By their count, about 8% of the territorial birds are disappearing every year. Their reports have repeatedly called on the Forest Service to save larger patches of old-growth trees, where the birds prefer to nest. "Our data are convincing, and the Forest Service has a legal responsibility to monitor this species," Noon says. But service managers have not responded to his team's findings, he adds.

Scientists also have a blind spot: They often ignore the politics and economics of resource management decisions, says former Forest Service director Jack Ward Thomas, who is now with the University of Montana, Missoula. "Researchers present results as if they were handed down from the heavens on inscribed tablets--the best scientific alternative is the only one," says Thomas. In reality, he notes, science is just one factor in conservation decisions: "It's up to the politicians and decision-makers to weigh the costs and benefits."

Two years ago, scientists handed down a major indictment of weak science behind management decisions. A study led by Peter Kareiva, an ecologist now with the National Marine Fisheries Service, found that weak data lay behind 233 habitat conservation plans (HCPs). These are federal agreements that allow private landowners and others to wipe out some members of an endangered species in return for substantial efforts to protect the population's habitat ( Science, 19 December 1997, p. 2052). "FWS is much too comfortable with using expert opinion, assumptions, and guesses in place of hard empirical evidence," says Kareiva.

FWS managers respond that HCPs are a legal mandate, and they don't have the luxury of waiting for science to give them more definitive answers. "The bottom line is, we have to make a decision, and we have to use the best science we've got," says FWS biologist Deborah Crouse. "If we wait 5 years for better answers, the species might just be gone."

Getting the word out. Many scientists blame themselves for not getting political mileage out of their findings. "If you assume your findings will be translated into management or policy, you're wrong," says Gary Meffe of the University of Florida, Gainesville. Adds ecologist Peter Stine of the U.S. Geological Survey in Sacramento, California: "There's so much managers could gain from what researchers have learned, if only we could synthesize the information for them."

That's precisely what some scientists are aiming to do. For starters, the SCB this spring will launch a new magazine-- Conservation Biology in Practice--that editor Kathryn Kohm of the University of Washington, Seattle, hopes will read like a Harvard Business Review for the conservation crowd. "Academics complain that managers don't read, but that's only because we haven't given them something worth reading," Kohm says. The bimonthly is intended to help managers ground conservation strategies in the latest science. "Dumping information from the ivory tower down clearly isn't working," she notes. "This is just one way to fill that gap."

Another strategy is a quarterly forum hosted by the Sustainable Ecosystems Institute (SEI), a nonprofit in Portland, Oregon, that analyzes ecological issues. SEI forums bring together scientists, managers, politicians, and industry officials to debate issues--and get past their mutual mistrust. At a forum 2 years ago on science in resource management, for instance, SEI president Deborah Brosnan broke the ice with a skit in which she played "the scientist from hell"--nose in the air, demanding endless cash and time for experiments, and offering ambiguous results in return. Across stage, arms folded, was "the manager from hell." She had zero money--and less patience--for slow-moving science. Shakespearean comedy it was not, says Brosnan, but "it opened the floodgates." Scientists came up with a proposal to rate their degree of confidence in conservation recommendations in order to help managers weigh the options. At SEI, this practice has become routine.

Such efforts toward rapprochement are a good start, say conservation biologists, who are counting on stronger advocates from the next generation to narrow the divide even more. The Nature Conservancy just launched its $9.5 million David H. Smith Conservation Science Fellowship Program, sending the first seven of 50 postdocs to work with managers in the field. The idea, says program director Guy McPherson, is "to grab the best and brightest headed into academia and expose them to the culture of on-the-ground conservation."

One Smith fellow, Jake Vander Zanden, a postdoc at the University of California, Davis, is plucking nonnative fish and amphibians from streams in the Sierra Nevada to help native populations rebound. "This is get-your-hands-dirty work," says Vander Zanden, who earned his Ph.D. studying food webs in lakes.

Progress may be halting, but scientists are beginning to find their voice, says Meffe. "Conservation biology is growing up."

Kathryn S. Brown is a writer in Columbia, Missouri.