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Demographic Limitations of the Ability of Habitat Restoration to Rescue Declining Populations

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Abstract:  Habitat restoration is often recommended in conservation without first evaluating whether populations are in fact habitat limited and thus whether declining populations can be stabilized or recovered through habitat restoration. We used a spatially structured demographic model coupled with a dynamic neutral landscape model to evaluate whether habitat restoration could rescue populations of several generic migratory songbirds that differed in their sensitivity to habitat fragmentation (i.e., severity of edge effects on nesting success). Simulating a best‐case scenario, landscapes were instantly restored to 100% habitat before, at, or after habitat loss exceeded the species' vulnerability threshold. The vulnerability threshold is a measure of extinction risk, in which the change in population growth rate (δλ) scaled to the rate of habitat loss (δh) falls below −1% (δλ/δh ≤−0.01). Habitat restoration was most effective for species with low‐to‐moderate edge sensitivities and in landscapes that had not previously experienced extensive fragmentation. To stabilize populations of species that were highly edge sensitive or any species in heavily fragmented landscapes, restoration needed to be initiated long before the vulnerability threshold was reached. In practice, habitat restoration is generally not initiated until a population is at risk of extinction, but our model results demonstrate that some populations cannot be recovered at this point through habitat restoration alone. At this stage, habitat loss and fragmentation have seriously eroded the species' demographic potential such that halting population declines is limited more by demographic factors than the amount of available habitat. Evidence that populations decline in response to habitat loss is thus not sufficient to conclude that habitat restoration will be sufficient to rescue declining populations.
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Language: English

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Division of Biology, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS 66506, USA 2: Environmental Sciences Division, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN 37831, USA

Publication date: August 1, 2005

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