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A Markov decision process for managing habitat for Florida scrub-jays

January 20, 2012

Florida scrub-jays Aphelocoma coerulescens are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act due to loss and degradation of scrub habitat. This study concerned the development of an optimal strategy for the restoration and management of scrub habitat at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which contains one of the few remaining large populations of scrub-jays in Florida. There are documented differences in the reproductive and survival rates of scrubjays among discrete classes of scrub height (<120 cm or "short"; 120-170 cm or "optimal"; .170 cm or "tall"; and a combination of tall and optimal or "mixed"), and our objective was to calculate a state-dependent management strategy that would maximize the long-term growth rate of the resident scrub-jay population. We used aerial imagery with multistate Markov models to estimate annual transition probabilities among the four scrub-height classes under three possible management actions: scrub restoration (mechanical cutting followed by burning), a prescribed burn, or no intervention. A strategy prescribing the optimal management action for management units exhibiting different proportions of scrub-height classes was derived using dynamic programming. Scrub restoration was the optimal management action only in units dominated by mixed and tall scrub, and burning tended to be the optimal action for intermediate levels of short scrub. The optimal action was to do nothing when the amount of short scrub was greater than 30%, because short scrub mostly transitions to optimal height scrub (i.e., that state with the highest demographic success of scrub-jays) in the absence of intervention. Monte Carlo simulation of the optimal policy suggested that some form of management would be required every year. We note, however, that estimates of scrub-height transition probabilities were subject to several sources of uncertainty, and so we explored the management implications of alternative sets of transition probabilities. Generally, our analysis demonstrated the difficulty of managing for a species that requires midsuccessional habitat, and suggests that innovative management tools may be needed to help ensure the persistence of scrub-jays at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. The development of a tailored monitoring program as a component of adaptive management could help reduce uncertainty about controlled and uncontrolled variation in transition probabilities of scrub-height and thus lead to improved decision making.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2011
Title A Markov decision process for managing habitat for Florida scrub-jays
DOI 10.3996/012011-JFWM-003
Authors Fred A. Johnson, David R. Breininger, Brean W. Duncan, James D. Nichols, Michael C. Runge, B. Ken Williams
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management
Series Number
Index ID 70007165
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southeast Ecological Science Center