Research and management initiatives ultimately require prioritisation, because investment is finite for both funds and available effort. Evaluation of prioritisation and planning processes is limited. Similarly, the benefits and costs of investing in planning exercises have had limited evaluation (Bottrill & Pressey 2012, Jarić et al. 2014). Assessments of planning exercises tend to focus on quantifiable outputs (e.g. number of hectares reserved), rather than indicators that directly demonstrate changes in ecological systems or the achievement of conservation goals because of planning (Bottrill et al. 2009). Where resources are especially limited, programs can focus on monitoring without a clear understanding of whether any results would inform management, or indeed whether any management actions would be acceptable (McDonald-Madden et al. 2010). Linking objectives, planning, management actions and monitoring is part of the well-accepted adaptive management cycle that is rarely completed in practice, reducing the value of already limited resources, and failing to inform and improve subsequent decisions (Ban et al. 2012).
At the same time, the practicalities of carrying out conservation research and management in an increasingly open and informed community tend to introduce biases in planning processes. Rather than focusing on species that are in high need of information for conservation planning, species that are wide ranging, highly abundant (and therefore more easily accessed) and charismatic tend to be the most studied (Clark & May 2002, Jarić et al. 2014). The reality is that conservation managers and funding agencies allocate funds knowing that some habitats and species might degrade anyway (Bottrill et al. 2009).
Some support exists for wise allocation of funds assisted by approaches such as triage and cost-efficient optimisation (Bottrill et al. 2009). Although examples of this approach are limited in the Australian context, the Department of Conservation in New Zealand has developed a cost-efficiency framework for threatened species conservation based on triage principles (Joseph et al. 2009), with the objective that recovery of more species could be funded at a level of higher success (i.e. more ‘bang for the buck’). It should be noted that such decision-making should not be interpreted as ‘sanctioning degradation or extinction in the name of efficiency’ (Bottrill & Pressey 2012). Rather, it is about being clear about strategic planning in the expenditure of limited funds and being clear about what conservation funding can achieve.