Ecosystem Management

Ecosystem management can be characterized as a holistic approach for managing natural resources and the ecological processes that serve our social, economic and cultural values. It relies on science-based, adaptive approaches to multiple ecosystem stresses to ecosystem components and processes at multiple spatial scales over time.


The overarching goal of ecosystem management is to consider the entirety of a system, ensuring that ecological services and biological resources are utilized sustainably, and where ecosystem processes function naturally such that native species are protected to the fullest extent possible for future generations. In this holistic approach to utilization and protection of our natural resources, ecosystem management sets priorities for the maintenance of viable populations of native species, representation of native ecosystems, perpetuation of evolutionary and ecological processes, management over short and long time periods, and accommodation of sustainable use by humans. It requires equal consideration of these and other priorities, which are often conflicting among stakeholders and across different spatial and temporal scales. In developing management strategies that can support these priorities while minimizing conflicts, ecosystem management relies on multidisciplinary scientific research to characterize the complex interactions within and across social and natural systems.

The NREL has a distinguished history of supporting ecosystem management through interdisciplinary research, stakeholder engagement, ecological modeling, and advanced spatial analyses. Studies focused, for example, on species conservation, biodiversity, forest systems, invasive species, wildlife management, soil management, forest and grassland ecosystems, pastoral and agro-systems, and environmental quality, are hallmarks of NREL research across the globe. These studies frequently include the priorities and perspectives that characterize ecosystem management.

For more than 20 years, NREL scientists such as Drs. Tom Stohlgren and Paul Evangelista have pioneered invasive species science in terrestrial, aquatic and marine environments. These include local and global scale research studies on native and non-native species interactions, effects on ecological processes, and impacts on livelihoods and economies, as well as efforts to engage stakeholders through citizen science programs, development of new tools and technologies, and on-line resources to support the early detection of and rapid response to new invasions.



Dr. Tom Hobbs has worked on population and community ecology of large wild herbivores for the last three decades. His work emphasizes two major themes, population modeling and understanding influences of herbivores on ecosystems. He’s made a variety of contributions to basic theory linking animal populations to their environment and worked to apply scientific knowledge to management and policy. Tom has made important conceptual contributions toward understanding how population dynamics are influenced by spatial heterogeneity of landscapes and habitat fragmentation. His work relies extensively on Bayesian models of populations of large mammals to support management and policy in North America and Scandinavia. With David Cooper, he leads long-term research to understand how the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone has influenced elk herbivory and the structure and function of riparian ecosystems. 

In the last few decades, wildfires and bark beetle outbreaks have dramatically altered forest structure throughout much of North America. The impacts of these large severe disturbances on ecosystem processes and biological resources have been studied in great depth at NREL. For example, Dr. Bill Romme documented spatial patterns and temporal trends in the re-growth of forest vegetation over 25 years following the 1988 Yellowstone fires. This research revealed that Rocky Mountain forests were remarkably resilient to those particular fires and to the kinds of fires that burned historically, with very rapid recovery of pre-fire species composition and ecosystem processes like nutrient cycling. However, more recent fires are burning with shorter intervals between fires and are being followed by warmer temperatures than occurred after historical fires.  Romme is now conducting new studies to evaluate whether these ecosystems will continue to be resilient in the face of changing climate and increasing fire frequency.