The release of animals to reestablish an extirpated population is a decision problem that is often attended by considerable uncertainty about the probability of success. Annual releases of captive-reared juvenile Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) were begun in 1993 in central Florida, USA, to establish a breeding, non-migratory population. Over a 12-year period, 286 birds were released, but by 2004, the introduced flock had produced only four wild-fledged birds. Consequently, releases were halted over managers' concerns about the performance of the released flock and uncertainty about the efficacy of further releases. We used data on marked, released birds to develop predictive models for addressing whether releases should be resumed, and if so, under what schedule. To examine the outcome of different release scenarios, we simulated the survival and productivity of individual female birds under a baseline model that recognized age and breeding-class structure and which incorporated empirically estimated stochastic elements. As data on wild-fledged birds from captive-reared parents were sparse, a key uncertainty that confronts release decision-making is whether captive-reared birds and their offspring share the same vital rates. Therefore, we used data on the only population of wild Whooping Cranes in existence to construct two alternatives to the baseline model. The probability of population persistence was highly sensitive to the choice of these three models. Under the baseline model, extirpation of the population was nearly certain under any scenario of resumed releases. In contrast, the model based on estimates from wild birds projected a high probability of persistence under any release scenario, including cessation of releases. Therefore, belief in either of these models suggests that further releases are an ineffective use of resources. In the third model, which simulated a population Allee effect, population persistence was sensitive to the release decision: high persistence probability was achieved only through the release of more birds, whereas extirpation was highly probable with cessation of releases. Despite substantial investment of time and effort in the release program, evidence collected to date does not favor one model over another; therefore, any decision about further releases must be made under considerable biological uncertainty. However, given an assignment of credibility weight to each model, a best, informed decision about releases can be made under uncertainty. Furthermore, if managers can periodically revisit the release decision and collect monitoring data to further inform the models, then managers have a basis for confronting uncertainty and adaptively managing releases through time.
Additional publication details
Evaluating release alternatives for a long-lived bird species under uncertainty about long-term demographic rates