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Inferring the nature of anthropogenic threats from long‐term abundance records

Shoemaker, Kevin T., Akçakaya, H. Resit
Conservation biology 2015 v.29 no.1 pp. 238-249
Gadus morhua, Lagopus lagopus scoticus, Thunnus thynnus, case studies, cod (fish), experts, habitat destruction, information sources, land use change, models, planning, population dynamics, risk, time series analysis
Diagnosing the processes that threaten species persistence is critical for recovery planning and risk forecasting. Dominant threats are typically inferred by experts on the basis of a patchwork of informal methods. Transparent, quantitative diagnostic tools would contribute much‐needed consistency, objectivity, and rigor to the process of diagnosing anthropogenic threats. Long‐term census records, available for an increasingly large and diverse set of taxa, may exhibit characteristic signatures of specific threatening processes and thereby provide information for threat diagnosis. We developed a flexible Bayesian framework for diagnosing threats on the basis of long‐term census records and diverse ancillary sources of information. We tested this framework with simulated data from artificial populations subjected to varying degrees of exploitation and habitat loss and several real‐world abundance time series for which threatening processes are relatively well understood: bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) and Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) (exploitation) and Red Grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica) and Eurasian Skylark (Alauda arvensis) (habitat loss). Our method correctly identified the process driving population decline for over 90% of time series simulated under moderate to severe threat scenarios. Successful identification of threats approached 100% for severe exploitation and habitat loss scenarios. Our method identified threats less successfully when threatening processes were weak and when populations were simultaneously affected by multiple threats. Our method selected the presumed true threat model for all real‐world case studies, although results were somewhat ambiguous in the case of the Eurasian Skylark. In the latter case, incorporation of an ancillary source of information (records of land‐use change) increased the weight assigned to the presumed true model from 70% to 92%, illustrating the value of the proposed framework in bringing diverse sources of information into a common rigorous framework. Ultimately, our framework may greatly assist conservation organizations in documenting threatening processes and planning species recovery.