Managing the ecosystem

Coyote 351 was initially tagged in Schaumburg, Ill., but he made his way to Fermilab in 2010 and spent his summer splitting time between Batavia neighborhoods and Fermilab — totally oblivious to human boundary lines. Photo: Greg Vogel, AD

Soon the snow will all be gone, and we will once again be outside enjoying the outdoors in an unfrozen state (trust me on this!). A large part of our efforts to manage and care for this site will involve conservation and restoration efforts in our natural areas. How do we go about allocating limited resources to bring the most environmental value to the site?

One guiding principle is ecosystem management. While it’s natural to think that our efforts should be directed at helping individual species or even a particular community, managing the ecosystem is much more effective, but also more complex. An ecosystem can be defined roughly as the living organisms in a location interacting with the nonliving elements of their environment in a systematic way. Ecosystem management recognizes the complex dynamic workings of ecosystems.

The ecosystem management concept implies that ecological boundaries and human-imposed boundaries rarely coincide. As an example, several years ago, we were able to track a coyote that spent roughly half his time on the Fermilab site and half in the adjacent Batavia neighborhood — very different environments with a clear (and dangerous) boundary.

One aspect of ecosystem management is adaptive management: the idea that various elements of the ecosystem are dynamic and that management must adapt. Things change. A very large-scale example is global climate change, but we see this dynamism even at the site level. For instance, the water table in the Main Ring has steadily risen in the last 10 years due to operational factors, and the plant community has adapted to the change, as has our management of it.

The most general goal of ecosystem management is to maintain ecological and evolutionary processes, such as nutrient cycles and ecosystem maturation. We are working toward the restoration of ecosystem function — not necessarily the reestablishment of the pre-settlement structures. In order to do that, we need some temporal stability in order to keep long-term processes relevant. That’s why the laboratory campus is such a good place to undertake this type of work: In terms of ecology, it experiences very little change and has been relatively stable over the four-plus decades the lab has been here. Lastly, and in some ways most importantly, we strive to establish a meaningful relationship between the natural ecosystem and the human beings who work within it.

Rod Walton