Population-specific vital rate contributions influence management of an endangered ungulate

Heather E. Johnson, L. Scott Mills, Thomas R. Stephenson, John D. Wehausen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


To develop effective management strategies for the recovery of threatened and endangered species, it is critical to identify those vital rates (survival and reproductive parameters) responsible for poor population performance and those whose increase will most efficiently change a population's trajectory. In actual application, however, approaches identifying key vital rates are often limited by inadequate demographic data, by unrealistic assumptions of asymptotic population dynamics, and of equal, infinitesimal changes in mean vital rates. We evaluated, the consequences of these limitations in an analysis of vital rates most important in the dynamics of federally endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae). Based on data collected from 1980 to 2007, we estimated vital rates in three isolated populations, accounting for sampling error, variance, and covariance. We used analytical, sensitivity analysis, life-stage simulation analysis, and a novel non-asymptotic simulation approach to (1) identify vital rates that should be targeted for subspecies recovery; (2) assess vital rate patterns of endangered bighorn sheep relative to other ungulate populations; (3) evaluate the performance of asymptotic vs. non-asymptotic models for meeting short-term management objectives; and (4) simulate management scenarios for boosting bighorn sheep population growth, rates. We found wide spatial and temporal variation in bighorn sheep vital rates, causing rates to vary in their importance to different populations. As a result, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep exhibited population-specific dynamics that did not follow theoretical expectations or those observed in other ungulates. Our study suggests that vital rate inferences from large, increasing, or healthy populations may not be applicable to those that are small, declining, or endangered. We also found that, while asymptotic approaches were generally applicable to bighorn sheep conservation planning, our non-asymptotic population models yielded unexpected results of importance to managers. Finally, extreme differences in the dynamics of individual bighorn sheep populations imply that effective management strategies for endangered species recovery may often need, to be population-specific.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1753-1765
Number of pages13
JournalEcological Applications
Issue number6
StatePublished - Sep 2010


  • Endangered species
  • Management
  • Ovis canadensis sierrae
  • Population models
  • Recovery
  • Sierra nevada bighorn sheep
  • Ungulate
  • Vital rates


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