Understanding what factors drive fluctuations in the abundance of endangered species is a difficult ecological problem but a major requirement to attain effective management and conservation success. The ecological traits of large mammals make this task even more complicated, calling for integrative approaches. We develop a framework combining individual-based modelling and statistical inference to assess alternative hypotheses on brown bear dynamics in the Cantabrian range (Iberian Peninsula). Models including the effect of environmental factors on mortality rates were able to reproduce three decades of variation in the number of females with cubs of the year (Fcoy), including the decline that put the population close to extinction in the mid-nineties, and the following increase in brown bear numbers. This external effect prevailed over density-dependent mechanisms (sexually selected infanticide and female reproductive suppression), with a major impact of climate driven changes in resource availability and a secondary role of changes in human pressure. Predicted changes in population structure revealed a nonlinear relationship between total abundance and the number of Fcoy, highlighting the risk of simple projections based on indirect abundance indices. This study demonstrates the advantages of integrative, mechanistic approaches and provides a widely applicable framework to improve our understanding of wildlife dynamics.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at http://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3577205.
- Received August 18, 2016.
- Accepted November 1, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.