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Category count models for adaptive management of metapopulations: Case study of an imperiled salamander

February 5, 2020

Managing spatially structured populations of imperiled species presents many challenges. Spatial structure can make it difficult to predict population responses to potential recovery activities, and learning through experimentation may not be advised if it could harm threatened populations. Adaptive management provides an appealing framework when experimentation is considered too risky or time consuming; we used such an approach for imperiled flatwoods salamanders at a Florida wildlife refuge. We represented this metapopulation with category count models and used stochastic dynamic programming to identify optimal decision policies that weighed trade‐offs between metapopulation persistence and management costs. We defined possible wetland categories in terms of habitat suitability and occupancy, specified category‐specific management actions, and identified transition probabilities via expert elicitation for two management strategies: “future” status quo (FSQ; frequent growing‐season burns) and extra management actions (EMA; restoration, translocation, head‐starting). We simulated metapopulation dynamics using the resulting optimal management policy and found that under model FSQ, occupancy steadily declined over time, indicating that populations would rapidly become extirpated; with model EMA, occupancy remained stable, suggesting that populations would persist only if additional actions are applied and are effective. This approach can be used to identify optimal solutions while accounting for uncertainty and considering both habitat and population dynamics, and to help managers make conservation decisions for populations at imminent risk of extinction.