Developing Metapopulation Connectivity Criteria from Genetic and Habitat Data to Recover the Endangered Mexican Wolf
July 6, 2020
Restoring connectivity between fragmented populations is an important tool for alleviating genetic threats to endangered species. Yet recovery plans typically lack quantitative criteria for ensuring such population connectivity. We demonstrate how models that integrate habitat, genetic, and demographic data can be used to develop connectivity criteria for the endangered Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), which is currently being restored to the wild from a captive population descended from 7 founders. We used population viability analysis that incorporated pedigree data to evaluate the relation between connectivity and persistence for a restored Mexican wolf metapopulation of 3 populations of equal size. Decreasing dispersal rates greatly increased extinction risk for small populations (<150–200), especially as dispersal rates dropped below 0.5 genetically effective migrants per generation. We compared observed migration rates in the Northern Rocky Mountains (NRM) wolf metapopulation to 2 habitat-based effective distance metrics, least-cost and resistance distance. We then used effective distance between potential primary core populations in a restored Mexican wolf metapopulation to evaluate potential dispersal rates. Although potential connectivity was lower in the Mexican wolf versus the NRM wolf metapopulation, a connectivity rate of >0.5 genetically effective migrants per generation may be achievable via natural dispersal under current landscape conditions. When sufficient data are available, these methods allow planners to move beyond general aspirational connectivity goals or rules of thumb to develop objective and measurable connectivity criteria that more effectively support species recovery. The shift from simple connectivity rules of thumb to species-specific analyses parallels the previous shift from general minimum-viable-population thresholds to detailed viability modeling in endangered species recovery planning.
Author(s): CARLOS CARROLL, RICHARD J. FREDRICKSON, AND ROBERT C. LACY