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Managing threatened species: the ecological toolbox, evolutionary theory and declining-population paradigm

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The management of threatened species is an important practical way in which conservationists can intervene in the extinction process and reduce the loss of biodiversity. Understanding the causes of population declines (past, present and future) is pivotal to designing effective practical management. This is the declining-population paradigm identified by Caughley.

There are three broad classes of ecological tool used by conservationists to guide management decisions for threatened species: statistical models of habitat use, demographic models and behaviour-based models. Each of these is described here, illustrated with a case study and evaluated critically in terms of its practical application.

These tools are fundamentally different. Statistical models of habitat use and demographic models both use descriptions of patterns in abundance and demography, in relation to a range of factors, to inform management decisions. In contrast, behaviour-based models describe the evolutionary processes underlying these patterns, and derive such patterns from the strategies employed by individuals when competing for resources under a specific set of environmental conditions.

Statistical models of habitat use and demographic models have been used successfully to make management recommendations for declining populations. To do this, assumptions are made about population growth or vital rates that will apply when environmental conditions are restored, based on either past data collected under favourable environmental conditions or estimates of these parameters when the agent of decline is removed. As a result, they can only be used to make reliable quantitative predictions about future environments when a comparable environment has been experienced by the population of interest in the past.

Many future changes in the environment driven by management will not have been experienced by a population in the past. Under these circumstances, vital rates and their relationship with population density will change in the future in a way that is not predictable from past patterns. Reliable quantitative predictions about population-level responses then need to be based on an explicit consideration of the evolutionary processes operating at the individual level.

Synthesis and applications. It is argued that evolutionary theory underpins Caughley's declining-population paradigm, and that it needs to become much more widely used within mainstream conservation biology. This will help conservationists examine critically the reliability of the tools they have traditionally used to aid management decision-making. It will also give them access to alternative tools, particularly when predictions are required for changes in the environment that have not been experienced by a population in the past.

Journal of Applied Ecology (2004) 41, 413–426
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Keywords: behaviour-based model; declining populations; demographic model; evolutionary processes; habitat use; statistical model

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2004

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