Difficult Disease Decisions: The Role of Value-Focused Thinking and Decision Analysis in Wildlife Disease Management


Organizers: Katrina E. Alger, USGS National Wildlife Health Center; Brittany Mosher, University of Vermont

Supported by:
TWS Wildlife Diseases Working Group; TWS Biometrics Working Group

Outbreaks of disease in wildlife populations can have far-reaching consequences for biodiversity, agricultural production, and human health. From a management standpoint, wildlife disease is often considered a “wicked” problem due to ecological complexity, competing stakeholder objectives, and underlying uncertainty about both the system and treatment efficacy. In addition, the quick, reactionary nature of wildlife disease outbreaks often requires urgent management action, while long-lasting or slow-moving epidemics may require more strategic planning over a longer timescale. Managers need an established framework that can help guide their decision making within the dual disease contexts of rapid, emergency response and long-term species or ecosystem resilience. Values-focused thinking and decision analysis are complementary approaches to decision-making that promote transparency, inclusivity, and defensibility. Structured Decision Making (SDM) is a framework applied commonly to natural resource management problems that combines clear and value-centric thinking with quantitative and qualitative tools for analyzing complex decisions and finding robust solutions. In this symposium we demonstrate how components of SDM can be scaled to meet the needs of decision-makers facing a wide variety of difficult wildlife disease problems. Our goal is to demonstrate a helpful process for thoughtfully considering all the elements of a disease decision, and systematically addressing the impediments that make that decision difficult, in order to reach the best possible solution.

Value-Focused Thinking and Decision Analysis: What Are They and How Are They Relevant to Wildlife Disease
Katrina E. Alger
In our world of rapidly changing land use, climate, and human communities, emerging infectious diseases are becoming an increasing threat to both natural and human populations. From a conservation perspective, panzootics such as white-nose syndrome in bats and chytridiomycosis in amphibians have caused dramatic population declines in species within and across entire continents. Furthermore, the movement of pathogens between wild species and domesticated animals or humans can create new reservoirs that allow a disease to persist in wild or anthropogenic systems and often leads to human-wildlife conflict that further complicates a manager’s decision space. In these cases, public and political pressure mounts on managers to take action to prevent or manage outbreaks, despite limited palatable interventions, conflicting objectives, and high degrees of uncertainty. For these reasons, wildlife disease decisions are often considered “wicked” problems and can feel overwhelming or intractable. This symposium focuses on the tools of value-focused thinking and decision analysis to help overcome the common decision impediments wildlife managers face when dealing with disease problems. I will provide an overview of both value-focused thinking and decision analysis in the form of Structured Decision Making (SDM), summarize some of the common challenges related to wildlife disease decisions, and introduce the symposium case studies designed to demonstrate how to address these challenges.
Using Collaborative Problem Framing to Identify Shared Objectives for a Multi-Jurisdictional Response to Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease
Katherine Richgels, Katrina E. Alger, Evan Grant, Julien Martin, C. White, Maurizio Martinelli, Victoria Barker
Emerging wildlife diseases rarely remain within a single management jurisdiction so coordination of response efforts across multiple jurisdictions can be impeded by differences in mission, resource availability, and priorities across collaborating land management agencies. In this case study, we present how the use of collaborative problem framing in a three-day workshop helped the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease response team identify shared objectives for management of this disease. Following the workshop, the shared objectives have been used by the response team to clarify long-term goals, shift priorities from emergency response to longer-term recovery, and allocate resources. The structured approach to collaborative problem framing also resulted in  team building and engagement from the decision makers that make up the executive and steering committees of the response. While we feel the workshop was largely successful in meeting the outcomes defined in advance, sustaining momentum from the workshop to further develop the shared objectives into a strategic plan will improve communication with and alignment of the work of the sub-teams with the broader response objectives.
Keeping Hawaii’s Forest Birds One Step Ahead of Disease in a Warming World
Eben Paxton
Hawaii’s high elevation forests provide a critical refuge from disease for native forest birds. However, global warming is facilitating the encroachment of mosquitoes and the diseases they transmit into increasingly higher elevations of remaining refugia, threatening the viability of the forest birds across the islands. Multiple management actions to address the threat of disease have been proposed, but there is an urgent need to identify which actions (or series of actions) should be prioritized as most effective, most cost efficient, and most likely to produce results at a pace sufficient to stay ahead of climate change. A group of scientists, managers, and policy makers convened to evaluate a set of possible conservation strategies under a structured decision making framework, focusing on management of Hakalau Forest National Wildlife Refuge, which was established to protect native Hawaiian forest birds. The biological models necessary to evaluate the set of conservation actions identified are not yet available, but the process of developing the framework for the decision analysis was immensely valuable for framing the issues and identifying information needs. Lessons learned from Hakalau Forest will be applicable to many other areas in Hawaii facing the same threat to forest birds.
Proact: a Rapid Prototyping Approach to White-Nose Syndrome Management Decision-Making
Riley Bernard, Alyssa Bennett, Rita Dixon, Jonah Evans, Jonathan Reichard, Jeremy Coleman, Evan Grant
Since 2008, federal, state, and provincial agencies and tribal and private organizations have collaborated on bat and white-nose syndrome (WNS) surveillance and monitoring, research, and management. Due to these efforts, scientists and natural resource managers have learned a lot about host and pathogen ecology and have begun disentangling the dynamics of this multi-host pathogen. However, effective management actions to combat WNS still remain elusive. Host-pathogen systems are complex, and identifying ecological research priorities to improve management, choosing among various actions, and deciding when to implement those actions can be challenging. Here, we review the outcomes of three Structured Decision Making workshops focused on the conservation of bats through the management of WNS in three pathogen progression zones (endemic, intermediate, and at-risk). Following the completion of these workshops, at least one optimal action was identified for each manager to have the capacity to align with each of their objectives. Critical knowledge gaps, uncertainty and risk were articulated with respect to how WNS dynamics and impacts may differ among bat species. By 2021, each of the three managers have worked towards implementing a WNS management decision based on the outcomes of the Structured Decision Making workshops.
Bighorn Sheep Pneumonia: Integrating Risk and Multiple Objectives to Proactively Address Wildlife Diseases
Sarah Sells, Michael Mitchell, Justin Gude
Diseases present major challenges for wildlife conservation. Risk of disease is difficult to predict, which challenges proactive prevention of outbreaks. Risk tolerance also varies among decision makers. Agencies furthermore must balance multiple competing objectives when deciding how to manage wildlife populations. These impediments confound decision-making and often lead to reactive crisis management when outbreaks arise. For example, such impediments occur when addressing pneumonia epizootics in bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis). Pneumonia threatens herd persistence and species recovery by triggering rapid population declines and extended periods of poor recruitment. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit sought to develop a more proactive, decision-analytic approach to assist herd managers in determining when and what type of management would be optimal for reducing risk of pneumonia epizootics. The approach needed to be broadly consistent statewide while providing flexibility in local decisions and a means to incorporate site-specific knowledge about conditions and risk. We present a case study of a decision analytic framework that integrates disease risk, risk tolerance, and multi-objective analysis to help guide local decisions about proactive disease management of herds in Montana. We expect this structured decision making-based approach to be useful for addressing various wildlife disease problems.
Science with Speed: Using a Decision Analytical Framework and Expert Elicitation to Rapidly Evaluate Emergent Wildlife Disease Risk
Jonathan Cook, Evan Grant, Michael Runge
Preventing wildlife disease outbreaks is a priority issue for natural resource agencies, and management decisions can be urgent, especially in epidemic circumstances. With the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, wildlife agencies were concerned whether the activities they authorize might increase the risk of viral transmission from humans to North American bats but had a limited amount of time in which to make decisions. Management agencies were also severely limited by a lack of knowledge and data necessary to make urgent and informed decisions. To address these challenges, Runge et al. (2020) used a combination of structured decision making and expert elicitation to clearly identify agency objectives, to develop and inform a quantitative risk model, and to evaluate management actions designed to mitigate risk. Following Runge et al. (2020), we conducted two additional studies that built upon that original study and found that the combination of decision analysis and expert elicitation were critical to integrating the best available science, and to providing timely guidance to managers as our knowledge and understanding of SARS-CoV-2 rapidly evolved. In this talk, we will discuss our experience evaluating SARS-CoV-2 risk to North American bats and use it as a foundation to highlight the broader benefits of structured decision making and expert elicitation for decision-making surrounding emergent wildlife diseases. We will also discuss a few of the challenges we faced in conducting and releasing decision-relevant science in a system with high uncertainty and rapidly evolving knowledge. We close by providing some lessons learned and identify some potential options that may improve decision-making for emergent wildlife diseases moving forward.
Translating Wildlife Disease Models into Viable Information for Managers
Brittany Mosher, Robin Russell, Evan Grant
Developing management strategies for wildlife diseases is challenging. One difficulty in finding success in these systems is harnessing the power of quantitative tools in a way that provides necessary information to managers. We introduce a framework for connecting management objectives with models that focuses on objective functions, or the state variables that are of utmost interest to a decision-maker. We illustrate our framework by introducing four objectives that are common in wildlife disease management problems. These objectives are hierarchical and linked and range from minimizing the spread of an invading pathogen to maximizing survival of infected hosts once a pathogen is established. These general objectives can be used to facilitate conversations with decision-makers and to identify key state variables of interest. We introduce canonical model types that are linked to each of these general objectives valued by decision-makers. We discuss data needs for each model type as well as alternatives to empirical data that may be useful when funding and/or time are limited. Finally, we summarize general sensitivity trends for each model type. By understanding which model parameters the state variable is most sensitive to in various scenarios (e.g., enzootic event, invading pathogen, etc.), researchers and practitioners can gain traction on disease decision problems even when data are unavailable or sparse. Our work will help solidify the connection between decision-maker values and model choice to advance the practice of wildlife disease management.
Using Decision Analysis to Facilitate Proactive Decision Making for Disease Response: Challenges and Opportunities for Bsal Management
Evan Grant, Riley Bernard, Adrianne Brand
Despite calls for improved responses to emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, management is seldom considered until a disease has been detected in a population. Emerging diseases have the potential to affect social, economic and ecological interests of North American resource managers, who are entrusted by society to manage protected areas and wildlife populations. Although preventing the arrival of a pathogen is most effective for controlling emerging infectious diseases, prevention is not failsafe. Resource managers must consider multiple social, economic and ecological objectives, which result in difficult trade-offs for any given disease management strategy (i.e., an optimal action for managing a wildlife disease may result in declines in recreational or economic values). Complexity arises in balancing numerous and competing demands on land managers, and this effectively limits our ability to identify and implement proactive management – representing a major challenge for developing management strategies for Bsal and other emerging infectious diseases. We present an analysis of the decision facing the Patuxent Research Refuge, MD, USA.

Location: Virtual Date: November 3, 2021 Time: 3:00 pm - 4:00 pm