Benchmarking Ecosystems

Diagnostic Indicators and Predictions of Biodiversity Health

Benchmarking Ecosystems is a science-based process developed by YERC that assesses the health of an ecosystem to develop a long-term care plan for recovery, restoration, and sustained resilience—as a health care provider does for a patient. The concept first emerged from a book chapter written by Crabtree and Sheldon (2012) where parallels are drawn between human health and a large regional ecosystem. Thus, a benchmark ecosystem is diagnosed with a gradient measure of multiple ecological indicators, or health tests, in order to derive prognostics—projections, what-if- scenarios, and ecological forecasts—to recover ecosystem structure and function and create ecosystems with healthy, resilient immune systems. It does not require an ecosystem in a pristine state but instead seeks to measure and monitor a cadre of ecological indicators across many ecosystems to comparatively define a healthy ‘well normal state’. It also allows for customized metrics that reflect unique impacts and properties of the individual ecosystem in question. This is similar to human medicine where diagnostics like blood pressure, serum parameters, reflex, and stress tests are used to identify disease, toxins, stressors, and other impacts to the ecosystems of the human body. Then prognoses follow whereby detrimental environmental and human impacts to ecosystems can be suppressed, mitigated, or eliminated in order to improve ecosystem health and ecological integrity. In adaptive ecology such diagnostics and predictive prognostics take the form of measuring and monitoring diagnostics—called ecological indicators—over space, time, and level of biodiversity—from genes to species to communities—to determine cause and consequence. This results in ecological forecasts of how actions can act like therapies and prescriptions to restore habitats and recover species populations, all culminating in a sustained ecological health care plan.

Metrics of Benchmarking: Ecological Indicators (EIs) of Health

The concept of ecological indicators has been the focus of hundreds of studies and conferences for over 50 years. They have been widely adopted as means to cost-effectively sample plant and animal communities to gauge the health, integrity, and condition of ecosystems worldwide. For species indicators—there are also indicator processes (fire, production, flooding, migration)—there are a variety of related terms such as keystone, umbrella, surrogate, focal, flagship, and vital sign. The all have a common conservation theme whereby we “put individual species to work” as sampling sentinels on the landscape and analyze measurements with proven technologies and approaches. Examples range from the simple (e.g., percent of original carnivore species present today) to the complex where a biologist might radio collar an individual deer to determine what habitats it selects or avoids as it migrates from its summer to winter range. At YERC, we’ve developed a wide range of indicators that are low-cost or freely available, accessible over the continental scale, standardized, and user-friendly.

Indicator Applications for Benchmarking Ecosystems

  1. Based on the success of previous ecological indicator applications (some below) we were asked by the NSF-funded Mountain Socio-Ecological Observatory Network (MtnSEON) to provide an assessment of not only ecological indicators but include interrelated socio-economic indicators to assess the resiliency of mountain communities in the Pacific Northwest.

  2. We were funded by a joint coalition of agencies and organizations called the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) to examine the effect of climate change using several species indicators.

  3. We presented a statewide analysis of Alaska using NPP as an ecosystem indicator and further provided early-warning predictions of how climate change (warming and drought) might impact resiliency—the ability to regenerate forests after wildfire.

  4. Using coyotes as an indicator species, we successfully predicted altered movement and habitat use patterns after death (by humans) of an alpha male that caused temporary dissolution of the pack.

  5. Perhaps our most impacting analysis that showcases the power of collaborative partnerships is our ecological forecasting of the impact of white pine blister rust on a keystone species, whitebark pine—an essential food source for grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

  6. YERC was contacted by ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) to showcase our NASA-funded ecological forecasting work in their book GeoDesign about utilizing GIS for regional planning. We chose pronghorn as an indicator of habitat change and build predictive models or What-if- Scenarios to project or predict their response to human impacts on their habitats (build a road or remove sagebrush).

  7. We have many other examples including the examination of the 100-year drought that hit Yellowstone National Park from 2001-04 using Net Primary Production (NPP). This approach was then applied to effects of drought on plant productivity across the entire 5-state PNW and northern Rockies due or our extensive COASTER database system.


Our Benchmarking Ecosystems project along with the development of key ecological indicators allows decision-makers—ecosystem health professionals—the opportunity to craft adaptation strategies to environmental impacts, both human and natural. With your support and our experience, we plan to make the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem a model for how adaptive ecology can restore habitats and recover species populations to sustain resilient ecosystems. Preserving and sustaining our natural assets and amenities is a goal of conservation, however, ecosystems are facing unprecedented change from the interaction of increasing human activities and climate change. We must now use science to craft collaborative, proactive, action-based plans that underpin future policy formation if we are to save life on earth.