Principles of Vegetation Measurement & Assessment
and Ecological Monitoring & Analysis


Veg Sampling
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Setting Priorities

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Readings & Instructions

  1. The section covers Chapters 3 of Measuring and Monitoring Plant Communities.
  2. This lesson provides an introduction to what the term monitoring means as it is applied to natural resources. Brown text highlights key words.
  3. Read through the Text and work through the Summary Questions at the end of the text.

Monitoring Details

Monitoring: A Question of Priority

Consider the scenario that you have been hired by the Bureau of Land Management to manage 20,000 acres that include forests and rangelands intersected by riparian areas. Within these areas you have an endangered species of owl and 3 fish species of concern. You may also have considerable fire fuel build-up or areas where soil erosion is making slopes unstable above roads and streams. In summary, you have many management goals and concerns.  If you are asked to produce a monitoring protocol you first need to set your management priorities.

Thankfully, several organizations have produced guidelines on how to go about defining the priority of one species or management objective over another.

Monitoring: Established Priority Systems

An example of a ranking system is one developed to rank the abundance of rarity of species created by the Natural Heritage Program. The main levels of this system are:

  • Critically Imperiled

  • Imperiled

  • Very Rare and Local

  • Apparently Secure

  • Demonstrably Secure

  • Status Uncertain

In this system, the first 3 priority levels are defined by the number of individuals. For example, critically imperiled refers to < 5 occurrences or <1000 individuals; whereas imperiled refers to 6-20 occurrences and <3000 individuals.


The level "Status Uncertain" refers to instances where not enough information about that species exists to determine whether the species is at risk.


Inventory methods could be used to assess the current status of a species.  Monitoring protocols could be subsequently applied to evaluate whether the populations of those species are increasing or declining.


An example of how matrices could be use to include several biological and management criteria to rank importance of monitoring among species and situations is presented on page 32 and 33 in Measuring and Monitoring Plant Communities.  In this example, the following biological and management criteria have been included:

     taxonomic status
     known decline
     extent of threats
     immediacy of threats

     existing conflict
     monitoring difficulty
     availability of management actions
     recovery potential
     public interest
     potential for crisis

Monitoring: Establish Your Own Priorities

There are many cases where a defined priority system does not exist for a specific monitoring task and you will need to set your own priorities. The bottom line in selecting monitoring sites and activities is that they be POSSIBLE and will give USEFUL information.


Here are few points that should be considered when initiating monitoring activities:

  • Are important legal or policy considerations driving monitoring such as sensitive or endangered species that occur in the area?

  • Are there management activities pending for which it will be necessary to evaluate impact or effectiveness?

  • Are there growing changes in land use activities, such as recreation, that might cause changes to the plant community.

  • Are management decisions being made, such as a grazing permit renewal, for which monitoring information would be valuable to monitor outcomes?

  • Is there growing public interest in a specific area, activity, or species for which monitoring data might be valuable to inform or resolve potential conflicts?

  • Can areas be identified for which management activities will be able to cause changes it the plant community?

  • What human, agency, or financial obstacles exist to monitoring activities?

Monitoring: Scale and Complexity

There is rarely, if ever, enough time or money to conduct necessary monitoring activities. The extent to which you conduct monitoring will be limited in both space and time. As such, it is important before starting any monitoring protocol to know what your scale of assessment is going to be. Clearly this will depend on many factors beyond purely your available resources. For example, monitoring the annual forage range of sheep may require a larger spatial extent for measurements than if you were interested in the feeding habitat of a meadow vole.

Scale can be simply defined as the spatial extent of your monitoring program. Clearly, the scale at which your measurements are taken should correspond to your management objectives and include the spatial extent that the features your are measuring. The scale at which you are making measurements should always be explicitly defined.


In a similar way, the level of complexity in your measurements and the level or replication will vary depending on your specific management objectives.


Image Source: Peterson, G., C. R. Allen, C. S. Holling. (1998). Ecosystem Resilience, Biodiversity, and Scale. Ecosystems 1: 6-18.


* The word scale has many meanings depending on your application. Example include: (1) cartographic scale: the ratio of true distance in the field to distance on a map; (2) Landscape ecology: the bracket of space (and/or time) that you would expect to observe an object or process; in addition to of course geological or anatomical features!

Summary Questions

  1. What are the differences between Imperiled and Rare species on the Nature Conservancy Priority System?
  2. What ten questions would you ask a land manager to determine the priority of one shrub species over another?
  3. Describe the differences between cartographic and landscape ecology uses of the word scale.

Advanced Questions:

  1. Describe the differences between the priority ranking systems used by Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Hint: see Elzinga et al. 2001 Chapter 3]
  2. Discuss the scenario of whether you would endorse the establishment of a management plan in which the saving of one endangered species results in (A) the displacement of another species that may itself become extinct through that disturbance and (B) the loss of livelihood for a local community of ranchers due to restricted access to forage.

***Again, these questions are just to get you thinking. You do not need to write formal answers to these questions.

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