We estimated survival, fertility, and realized and asymptotic population growth rates from 1981 to 2002 for a protected population of black bears (Ursus americanus) in the southern Appalachian Mountains. We used Akaike's information criterion to assess the time interval for averaging observations that was best for estimating vital rates for our study, given our yearly sample sizes. The temporal symmetry approach allowed us to directly assess population growth and to address all losses and gains to the population by using only capture data, offering an alternative to the logistically intensive collection of reproductive data. Models that averaged survival and fertility across 5- and 7-year time intervals were best supported by our data. Studies of black bear populations with annual sample sizes similar to ours should be of at least 5 years in duration to estimate vital rates reliably, and at least 10 years in duration to evaluate changes in population growth rate (λ). We also hypothesized that survival would not track changes in λ because λ is influenced by both survival and fertility. The 5-year model supported our hypothesis, but the 7-year model did not. Where long-term dynamics of large, relatively stable bear populations are of interest, monitoring survival is likely to be sufficient for evaluating trends in λ. For rapidly changing, small populations, however, failure to incorporate fertility into assessments of λ could be misleading.
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