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Evaluating the status of individuals and populations: Advantages of multiple approaches and time scales: Chapter 6

March 6, 2015

The assessment of population status is a central goal of applied wildlife research and essential to the field of wildlife conservation. “Population status” has a number of definitions, the most widely used having to do with the current trajectory of the population (i.e., growing, stable, or declining), or the probability of persistence (i.e., extinction risk), perhaps without any specific knowledge as to the factors driving a population’s dynamics. In contrast, a population’s status relative to the carrying capacity of the environment (K) is an ecologically-based definition that explicitly provides information about a major mechanism of population control. That is, it relates to the relative per capita availability of resources to individuals in a population, which can also be used to infer the state of the environment itself.

Sea otters in the North Pacific provide an excellent system with which to examine various approaches to assessing population status relative to K. This is because sea otters were nearly extirpated by historic commercial overexploitation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, followed by natural and translocation-aided population recovery during the twentieth century, and this decline and recovery has been relatively well documented. This provided a unique opportunity to study populations at the extremes of the population status spectrum. Here we describe and review the approaches that have been utilized in sea otter research to understand the status of populations relative to resource abundance. Specifically, we will illustrate the utility of various indices of population status for understanding population dynamics using the case study of a second precipitous sea otter decline in the Western Aleutians. The indices or “tools” described here fit into several broad categories including (1) energetic, (2) morphological, and (3) demographic as well as a fourth category of emerging tools that have not yet been employed in many other situations including dietary diversity, community structure, spatial distribution, and gene expression.

Overall, a variety of indices used to measure population status throughout the sea otter’s range have provided insights for understanding the mechanisms driving the trajectory of various sea otter populations, which a single index could not, and we suggest using multiple methods to measure a population’s status at multiple spatial and temporal scales. The work described here also illustrates the usefulness of long-term data sets and/or approaches that can be used to assess population status retrospectively, providing information otherwise not available. While not all systems will be as amenable to using all the approaches presented here, we expect innovative researchers could adapt analogous multi-scale methods to a broad range of habitats and species including apex predators occupying the top trophic levels, which are often of conservation concern.