Like competent medical practitioners, ecosystem managers can deduce ecosystem condition through standardized evaluation procedures if they use appropriately selected indicators. A variety of individuals and organizations over the past 30 years have been identifying the most important characteristics of ecological indicators. Their explorations inevitably center on the fundamental question 'What are we trying to indicate?'
Ecological indicators should be measurable, integrative, ecologically relevant, socially relevant, interpretable, cost-effective, anticipatory, collected at appropriate geographic scales, collected at appropriate temporal scales, and able to detect trends; they should provide data that are quantitative, statistically rigorous, reliable, and comparable; and they must be useful as diagnostic tools. Appropriate indicators should stand upon empirical and conceptual ecological foundations, which should in turn arise from and describe the many dimensions of real ecological systems. Combining information from individual population, assemblage, and landscape levels enriches our ability to understand the many dimensions of ecological systems, just as economic indexes based on multiple economic indicators (the consumer price index, for example) can help us understand the behavior of economic systems. Furthermore, good indicators should be sensitive to a broad range of known stressors and, ideally, likely to sense unknown or as yet unidentified stressors. Finally, the activity required to collect data for an ecological indicator should be unobtrusive, to minimize any alteration of or harm to the system itself or its threatened or endangered species.
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