Interpreting variation to advance predictive restoration science

Lars A. Brudvig, Rebecca S. Barak, Jonathan T. Bauer, T. Trevor Caughlin, Daniel C. Laughlin, Loralee Larios, Jeffrey W. Matthews, Katharine L. Stuble, Nash E. Turley, Chad R. Zirbel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ecological restoration is a global priority that holds great potential for benefiting natural ecosystems, but restoration outcomes are notoriously unpredictable. Resolving this unpredictability represents a major, but critical challenge to the science of restoration ecology. In an effort to move restoration ecology toward a more predictive science, we consider the key issue of variability. Typically, restoration outcomes vary relative to goals (i.e. reference or desired future conditions) and with respect to the outcomes of other restoration efforts. The field of restoration ecology has largely considered only this first type of variation, often focusing on an oversimplified success vs. failure dichotomy. The causes of variation, particularly among restoration efforts, remain poorly understood for most systems. Variation associated with restoration outcomes is a consequence of how, where and when restoration is conducted; variation is also influenced by how the outcome of restoration is measured. We propose that variation should decrease with the number of factors constraining restoration and increase with the specificity of the goal. When factors (e.g. harsh environmental conditions, limited species reintroductions) preclude most species, little variation will exist among restorations, particularly when goals are associated with metrics such as physical structure, where species may be broadly interchangeable. Conversely, when few constraints to species membership exist, substantial variation may result and this will be most pronounced when restoration is assessed by metrics such as taxonomic composition. Synthesis and applications. The variability we observe during restoration results from both restoration context (how, where and when restoration is conducted) and how we evaluate restoration outcomes. To advance the predictive capacity of restoration, we outline a research agenda that considers metrics of restoration outcomes, the drivers of variation among existing restoration efforts, experiments to quantify and understand variation in restoration outcomes, and the development of models to organise, interpret and forecast restoration outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1018-1027
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2017


  • adaptive management
  • biodiversity
  • contingency
  • human land use
  • managed landscapes
  • reference conditions
  • restoration ecology
  • restoration targets

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology


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