Conserving populations of long-lived birds of prey, characterized by a slow life-history (e.g., high survival and low reproductive output), requires a thorough understanding of how variation in their vital rates differentially affects population growth. Stochastic population modeling provides a framework for exploring variation in complex life histories to better understand how environmental and demographic variation within individual vital rates affects population dynamics. Specifically, we used life-stage simulation analysis (LSA) to identify those life-history characteristics that most affect population growth and are amenable to management actions. The Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is a wide-ranging raptor of conservation concern, which has been adopted as a focal species for conservation planning. Golden Eagle population trends in western North America currently appear stable. Yet an expanding human footprint that may increase mortality stimulated our investigation into the ability of populations to sustain reduced survival. We fit mixed-effects models to published estimates of vital rates to estimate the mean and process variation of productivity (young fledged per pair) and survival for use in a LSA framework. As expected, breeding adult survival had the greatest relative effect on population growth, though productivity explained the most variation in growth. Based on perturbation analyses, we demonstrate that even minor reductions in breeding adult survival (<4.5%) caused otherwise stable populations to decline. Despite its importance, precise estimates of spatial and temporal variation in breeding adult survival are poorly documented. Importantly, we found that the ability for increases in reproductive output to compensate for decreased survival was very limited. To maintain stable populations, declines in survival >4% required increases in productivity that generally exceed the evolutionary potential for Golden Eagles. Our findings support the current U.S. Fish and Wildlife conservation strategy which mitigates eagle “take” via efforts to reduce mortality elsewhere.
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Vol. 51 • No. 3