Measuring rates and causes of mortalities is important in animal ecology and management. Observing the fates of known individuals is a common method of estimating life history variables, including mortality patterns. It has long been assumed that data lost when known animals disappear were unbiased. We test and reject this assumption under conditions common to most, if not all, studies using marked animals. We illustrate the bias for 4 endangered wolf populations in the United States by reanalyzing data and assumptions about the known and unknown fates of marked wolves to calculate the degree to which risks of different causes of death were mismeasured. We find that, when using traditional methods, the relative risk of mortality from legal killing measured as a proportion of all known fates was overestimated by 0.05–0.16 and the relative risk of poaching was underestimated by 0.17–0.44. We show that published government estimates are affected by these biases and, importantly, are underestimating the risk of poaching. The underestimates have obscured the magnitude of poaching as the major threat to endangered wolf populations. We offer methods to correct estimates of mortality risk for marked animals of any taxon and describe the conditions under which traditional methods produce more or less bias. We also show how correcting past and future estimates of mortality parameters can address uncertainty about wildlife populations and increase the predictability and sustainability of wildlife management interventions.
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Vol. 98 • No. 5