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2. Ecosystem Indicators

The quality of human existence depends on diverse natural resources and healthy ecosystems. Such resources exist and interact within spatially and temporally dynamic ecosystems. However, activities associated with expanding human populations alter these complex ecosystems and thereby threaten their sustainability and the resources and values (e.g., food, fiber, medicine, waste processing, wildlife habitat, fuel, shelter, aesthetic qualities, and recreational opportunities) that they provide. Monitoring ecosystem status and trends is critical for detecting alterations that impact the integrity of ecosystems and their capacity to provide valuable resources into the future.

EPA shares with other Federal agencies the responsibility to assess, prevent, and reverse adverse impacts of human activities on ecosystems. Monitoring all components of an ecosystem (soil, water, air, plants, animals, microorganisms) and functional interactions is impractical, but certain measurable environmental variables, indicators, can be used as surrogates or markers of the more complete and complex structural and functional attributes that are the cause and consequence of ecosystem integrity and sustainability. An ecological indicator is a characteristic that is related to, or derived from, a measure of a biotic or abiotic variable that can provide quantitative information on ecological structure (component networks) and function (interactions). An indicator should thus contribute to the measurement of ecological integrity and sustainability.

Previous research efforts have largely concentrated on indicators within a single resource type (i.e., wetlands, estuaries, rivers, lakes, streams, or forests), at a single spatial scale and using a single sampling design. While proposed research on single-system, single-scale indicators will be considered in response to this solicitation, research that results in the development or application of ecological indicators that integrate between or among resource types, spatial scales, and/or sampling designs will be given highest priority. A description of a multi-tier framework of sampling designs for monitoring is provided below.

Monitoring Framework

A monitoring framework to track status and trends in the condition of the nation's ecological resources was envisioned by both the National Science and Technology Council's Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources (CENR) and EPA’s Environmental Monitoring and Assessment Program (EMAP). These programs recognized that an assessment of ecosystem condition must consider multiple levels oforganization (organism, population, community, ecosystem), interactions of resource types (wetlands, estuaries, large rivers, lakes, streams, forests, etc.), multiple spatial scales (local, watershed, regional, national, global), and that various monitoring strategies were needed to answer the diverse questions related to ecosystem condition. A fundamental premise underlying this framework for environmental monitoring is that no single sampling design can effectively provide all of the information needed to evaluate environmental conditions and guide policy decisions. A tiered structure was developed to emphasize sampling designs based on three spatial scales:

Ultimately, measurements at all three levels must be performed in a coordinated fashion, allowing an improved understanding of ecosystems and an improved ability to manage those systems for integrity and sustainability.


EPA solicits proposals for research that leads to the development of techniques and indicators that characterize and quantify the integrity and sustainability of ecosystems at local, regional, national, and/or global scales. Applications should address the following prioritized research objectives:

  • The highest priority objective is to stimulate the development, evaluation, and integration of indicators, suites of indicators, indices, and models to improve local, regional, national, and global monitoring and assessment of ecological integrity and sustainability. EPA recognizes the need to develop system-level indicators that cross resource types, span spatial scales, and integrate sampling designs. Cross-resource indicators may be represented by single measurements that reflect and/or integrate conditions in more than one type of ecosystem (e.g., amphibian populations dependent on both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems) or different measurements made jointly on more than one ecosystem, and then linked together by an algorithm or model (e.g., simultaneously measuring linked aquatic and terrestrial components of a watershed). Integration across spatial scales may include indicators that combine patch size, vegetation structure, and foliar condition into an index of forest sustainability. Integration among sampling tiers may include techniques that synthesize existing data from different tiers or that combine indicators from different sampling designs to better determine ecosystem condition.
  • The second priority objective is to develop indicators of functional processes that contribute to ecological integrity and sustainability. In particular, research is needed on indicators that reflect critical functional associations among indicators from different resource types (e.g., the relationship between indicators of forest canopy and stream biotic integrity).
  • The third priority objective is to develop indicators that identify effects of particular stressors of ecological integrity and sustainability. Research is requested that examines the potential of indicators to improve our ability to interpret changes in ecological integrity as a function of stressor type and exposure characteristics. Studies are desired that relate indicators of population or community structure/function to exposure to either chemical, physical, or biological stressors, consistent with clearly stated mechanistic cause-effect hypotheses. Examples include developing indicators of amphibian and reptile reproduction or estuarine plankton composition that would distinguish between the effects of pesticide exposure and of UV-B radiation.
Scope of Research

EPA solicits research proposals related to the development or evaluation of ecological indicators, suites of indicators, indices, and models that could be used to characterize status or trends in multiple-resource ecosystems. Each proposal must address the potential for the proposed techniques to improve our ability to characterize with confidence ecological integrity and sustainability. Applications should provide a reasonable scientific conceptual model to account for the functional relationship between or among indicator(s) and their response to anthropogenic stressors. This solicitation emphasizes the need for indicators that cross resources, span spatial scales, and/or integrate sampling regimes.


Applicants may apply for grants on their own behalf or establish interdisciplinary teams. Proposals involving multiple institutions are encouraged but are not necessary. Proposals representing research consortia should clearly identify the lead institution and the basis for allocating research funds.


Approximately $10 million will be available in fiscal year 1997 for funding proposals in the research areas described. It is anticipated that the annual funding levels (for up to three years) will range from $100,000 to $300,000 although research involving complex multiple scale issues may be funded up to $500,000.

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