Indicators for Monitoring Biodiversity: A Hierarchical Approach

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Biodiversity is presently a minor consideration in environmental policy. It has been regarded as too broad and vague a concept to be applied to real-world regulatory and management problems. This problem can be corrected if biodiversity is recognized as an end in itself, and if measurable indicators can be selected to assess the status of biodiversity over time. Biodiversity, as presently understood, encompasses multiple levels of biological organization. In this paper, I expand the three primary attributes of biodiversity recognized by Jerry Franklin – composition, structure, and function – into a nested hierarchy that incorporates elements of each attribute at four levels of organization: regional landscape, community-ecosystem, population-species, and genetic. Indicators of each attribute in terrestrial ecosystems, at the four levels of organization, are identified for environmental monitoring purposes. Projects to monitor biodiversity will benefit from a direct linkage to long-term ecological research and a commitment to test hypotheses relevant to biodiversity conservation. A general guideline is to proceed from the top down, beginning with a coarse-scale inventory of landscape pattern, vegetation, habitat structure, and species distributions, then overlaying data on stress levels to identify biologically significant areas at high risk of impoverishment. Intensive research and monitoring can be directed to high-risk ecosystems and elements of biodiversity, while less intensive monitoring is directed to the total landscape (or samples thereof). In any monitoring program, particular attention should be paid to specifying the questions that monitoring is intended to answer and validating the relationships between indicators and the components of biodiversity they represent.