Conservation of small populations is often based on limited data from spatially and temporally restricted studies, resulting in management actions based on an incomplete assessment of the population drivers. If fluctuations in abundance are related to changes in weather, proper management is especially important, because extreme weather events could disproportionately affect population abundance. Conservation assessments, especially for vulnerable populations, are aided by a knowledge of how extreme events influence population status and trends. Although important for conservation efforts, data may be limited for small or vulnerable populations. Integrated population models maximize information from various sources of data to yield population estimates that fully incorporate uncertainty from multiple data sources while allowing for the explicit incorporation of environmental covariates of interest. Our goal was to assess the relative influence of population drivers for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) in the core of its range, western and southern Kansas, USA. We used data from roadside lek count surveys, nest monitoring surveys, and survival data from telemetry monitoring combined with climate (Palmer drought severity index) data in an integrated population model. Our results indicate that variability in population growth rate was most influenced by variability in juvenile survival. The Palmer drought severity index had no measurable direct effects on adult survival or mean number of offspring per female; however, there were declines in population growth rate following severe drought. Because declines in population growth rate occurred at a broad spatial scale, declines in response to drought were likely due to decreases in chick and juvenile survival rather than emigration outside of the study area. Overall, our model highlights the importance of accounting for environmental and demographic sources of variability, and provides a thorough method for simultaneously evaluating population demography in response to long-term climate effects.
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