It has been argued that spatially explicit population models (SEPMs) cannot provide reliable guidance for conservation biology because of the difficulty of obtaining direct estimates for their demographic and dispersal parameters and because of error propagation. We argue that appropriate model calibration procedures can access additional sources of information, compensating the lack of direct parameter estimates. Our objective is to show how model calibration using population-level data can facilitate the construction of SEPMs that produce reliable predictions for conservation even when direct parameter estimates are inadequate. We constructed a spatially explicit and individual-based population model for the dynamics of brown bears (Ursus arctos) after a reintroduction program in Austria. To calibrate the model we developed a procedure that compared the simulated population dynamics with distinct features of the known population dynamics (=patterns). This procedure detected model parameterizations that did not reproduce the known dynamics. Global sensitivity analysis of the uncalibrated model revealed high uncertainty in most model predictions due to large parameter uncertainties (coefficients of variation CV ~ 0.8). However, the calibrated model yielded predictions with considerably reduced uncertainty (CV ~ 0.2). A pattern or a combination of various patterns that embed information on the entire model dynamics can reduce the uncertainty in model predictions, and the application of different patterns with high information content yields the same model predictions. In contrast, a pattern that does not embed information on the entire population dynamics (e.g., bear observations taken from sub-areas of the study area) does not reduce uncertainty in model predictions. Because population-level data for defining (multiple) patterns are often available, our approach could be applied widely.
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