Accounting for fitness: Combining survival and selection when assessing wildlife-habitat relationships


Cameron L. Aldridge and Mark S. Boyce


Israel Journal of Ecology & Evolution 54:389–419; 2008


Assessing the viability of a population requires understanding of the resources used by animals to determine how those resources affect long-term population persistence. To understand the true importance of resources, one must consider both selection (where a species occurs) and fitness (reproduction and survival) associated with the use of those resources. Failure to do so may result in incorrect assessments of habitat quality and inappropriate management activities. We illustrate the importance of considering both occurrence and fitness metrics when assessing habitat requirements for the endangered greater sage-grouse in Alberta, Canada. This population is experiencing low recruitment, so we assess resource use during the brood-rearing period to identify management priorities. First, we develop logistic regression occurrence models fitted with habitat covariates. Second, we use proportional hazard survival analysis to assess chick survival (fitness component) associated with habitat and climatic covariates. Sage-grouse show strong selection for sagebrush cover at both patch (smaller) and area (larger) spatial scales, and weak selection for forbs at the patch scale only. Drought conditions based on an index combining growing degree days and spring precipitation strongly reduced chick survival. While hens selected for taller grass and more sagebrush cover, only taller grass cover also enhanced chick survival. We show that sage-grouse may not recognize all ecological cues that enhance chick survival. Management activities targeted at providing habitats that sage-grouse are likely to use in addition to those that enhance survival are most likely to ensure the long-term viability of this population. Our techniques account for both occurrence and fitness in habitat quality assessments and, in general, the approach should be applicable to other species or ecosystems.