Captive breeding is key to management of severely endangered species, but maximizing captive production can be challenging because of poor knowledge of species breeding biology and the complexity of evaluating different management options. In the face of uncertainty and complexity, decision-analytic approaches can be used to identify optimal management options for maximizing captive production. Building decision-analytic models requires iterations of model conception, data analysis, model building and evaluation, identification of remaining uncertainty, further research and monitoring to reduce uncertainty, and integration of new data into the model. We initiated such a process to maximize captive production of the whooping crane (Grus americana), the world's most endangered crane, which is managed through captive breeding and reintroduction. We collected 15 years of captive breeding data from 3 institutions and used Bayesian analysis and model selection to identify predictors of whooping crane hatching success. The strongest predictor, and that with clear management relevance, was incubation environment. The incubation period of whooping crane eggs is split across two environments: crane nests and artificial incubators. Although artificial incubators are useful for allowing breeding pairs to produce multiple clutches, our results indicate that crane incubation is most effective at promoting hatching success. Hatching probability increased the longer an egg spent in a crane nest, from 40% hatching probability for eggs receiving 1 day of crane incubation to 95% for those receiving 30 days (time incubated in each environment varied independently of total incubation period). Because birds will lay fewer eggs when they are incubating longer, a tradeoff exists between the number of clutches produced and egg hatching probability. We developed a decision-analytic model that estimated 16 to be the optimal number of days of crane incubation needed to maximize the number of offspring produced. These results show that using decision-analytic tools to account for uncertainty in captive breeding can improve the rate at which such programs contribute to wildlife reintroductions.
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Vol. 75 • No. 3