Biostat Zoological Services | It is all about the question?
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It is all about the question?

It is all about the question?

[One thing I did not clearly articulate was this series of blogs is primarily directed at the survey methods for people working under the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process as defined in Western Australia.]

Critical to all decisions surrounding the survey process is the need to form the most appropriate and relevant ecological questions that underpin the investigations.

Without well formulated questions there are no effective limiters to the design or implementation of a survey and the resulting information is very likely to be irrelevant, inconsequential, spurious or a combination of the three.

There are many extrinsic factors which will impinge on how questions are being asked. For example, the EIA process simply requires a level of information for regulatory bodies to make informed decisions. There is no definition of “informed” or “level” but for our own peace of mind, we will ensure that we will provide for an elevated “informing” beyond the minimum “level”. One thing we do want to avoid is to provide nothing more than a basic inventory list of species with little or no thought given to ecological processes, ecosystem functionality or impact assessment (which, unfortunately, seems to be the norm).

So for we, the field zoologists who value their training in the sciences, we need to by-pass this minimalist approach and provide a body of work that is scientifically robust and ecologically relevant. The trick is to work up to a higher standard rather than continually work down the minimum requirements.

So how do we form the questions that define our survey?

The first thing you need to take into account is the project that will require the assessment (not a comprehensive list):

  • Is it a brown-fields project (i.e., already in disturbed, highly modified locations) or green-fields project (I.e., located in relatively intact natural/native ecosystems)?
  • What is the size of the impact area (be careful as that may include areas outside the immediate project boundaries)?
  • What type of broad impacts are to be expect (extensive vegetation clearing, topological alterations, changes to drainage patterns, etc.)?
  • Over what period are impacts to be felt over the landscape (e.g., what is the life of the mine, what are the impacts of future urbanisation)?
  • What are the jurisdictional and legislative requirements?

Then there are ecological aspects that have to be considered (again, not a comprehensive list):

  • In what region is the project located (i.e., what are the local landscape characteristics and what micro-habitats are likely to be encountered)?
  • Have there been any previous studies within the local area or region (and how old are they, i.e., relevance)?
  • What are the obvious biotic components that need special attention (i.e., are there communities or species of special interest within the region of the project)?
  • What impacts (direct, indirect and cumulative) are relevant to the ecosystems of the area of the project, the local area and the region?
  • Is it likely that rehabilitation will be undertaken (this will determine the type of data that should be collected)?
  • Is it necessary to undertake a short field investigation of the area to understand the environment? (Highly recommended and should be the first action in many cases.)

One may say that the last six points are the results of an assessment rather than the precursor to one. However, experienced field zoologists should have a fairly good idea of these matters either in detail or in general terms.

Taking all of these factors into account will allow a planner to determine the question that the survey will need to answer. For all intents and purposes, the response to the question will begin with “the need to characterise the biota and ecosystems of the area through………”.

What comes next could be as simple as “collating a list of potential species or ecological communities that may be impacted negatively by the development from existing information” (i.e., a risk analysis).

It could also be that a project may be of a scale that would require a lot more information to be collected over the impact area and over a number of periods in a year. So the response becomes “….through the undertaking of a comprehensive multi-seasonal broad scale fauna survey over the main impact and adjacent areas”.

It is from that response that the level of assessment can be determined. That is, a desktop study, site investigation, targeted species specific survey, broad scale baseline survey or a combination of these.

For those who realised that I have not actually posed “the question” that underpins all surveys, here it is: you ask “What’s there?