Is there evidence of shifting baseline syndrome in environmental managers? An assessment using perceptions of bird population targets in UK nature reserve

Lizzie Jones, Samuel T Turvey, Sarah Papworth

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Shifting baseline syndrome (SBS) describes changing perceptions of biological conditions due to a loss of historical knowledge. Perceptions of ‘normal’ environmental conditions are continually updated, leading to underestimation of the true magnitude of long-term ecological change and potential setting of unambitious management targets. There has been speculation as to the presence and impacts of SBS within conservation management since Daniel Pauly's seminal paper in 1995, which outlined the potential effects of SBS on target-setting in fisheries management. Previous case studies have suggested that SBS may not occur in management, despite empirical evidence of SBS in other systems. In this study, 44 professionals and volunteers involved in bird species management, monitoring and target-setting across England were interviewed. Interviews asked for personal perceptions of current, maximum and target abundance, long-term trends, and perceived conservation priority for six bird species. Using paired tests, this study found no significant effect of experience on perceptions of current, maximum or target abundance of all species, despite differences in national abundance and trends, and differences in participant experience. Further power analysis indicated that even if SBS was statistically detectible with a larger sample, the practical implications of the syndrome would be minimal due to small effect sizes. Finally, the effect of experience on individual perceptions of species conservation priority varied between species, with generational amnesia in the form of ‘lifting baselines’ suggested for only one of the six species. This study suggests that shifting baseline syndrome may not be as significant a threat in conservation management as first thought.
Original languageEnglish
Article number113308
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Early online date21 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2021

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