To successfully respond to changing habitat, climate or harvest, managers need to identify the most effective strategies to reverse population trends of declining species and/or manage harvest of game species. A classic approach in conservation biology for the last two decades has been the use of matrix population models to determine the most important vital rates affecting population growth rate (λ), that is, sensitivity. Ecologists quickly realized the critical role of environmental variability in vital rates affecting λ by developing approaches such as life-stage simulation analysis (LSA) that account for both sensitivity and variability of a vital rate. These LSA methods used matrix-population modeling and Monte Carlo simulation methods, but faced challenges in integrating data from different sources, disentangling process and sampling variation, and in their flexibility. Here, we developed a Bayesian integrated population model (IPM) for two populations of a large herbivore, elk (Cervus canadensis) in Montana, USA. We then extended the IPM to evaluate sensitivity in a Bayesian framework. We integrated known-fate survival data from radio-marked adults and juveniles, fecundity data, and population counts in a hierarchical population model that explicitly accounted for process and sampling variance. Next, we tested the prevailing paradigm in large herbivore population ecology that juvenile survival of neonates <90 d old drives λ using our Bayesian LSA approach. In contrast to the prevailing paradigm in large herbivore ecology, we found that adult female survival explained more of the variation in λ than elk calf survival, and that summer and winter elk calf survival periods were nearly equivalent in importance for λ. Our Bayesian IPM improved precision of our vital rate estimates and highlighted discrepancies between count and vital rate data that could refine population monitoring, demonstrating that combining sensitivity analysis with population modeling in a Bayesian framework can provide multiple advantages. Our Bayesian LSA framework will provide a useful approach to addressing conservation challenges across a variety of species and data types.
- Bayesian state-space models
- Cervus canadensis
- life-stage simulation analysis
- vital rates