Indicators of ecological change: new tools for managing populations of large herbivores


  • The authors would like to dedicate this paper to Jean-Paul Vincent, who initiated this work in the early 1980s.

Nicolas Morellet, Comportement et Ecologie de la Faune Sauvage, Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique, BP 52627, Castanet-Tolosan Cedex, F31326, France (Fax: +33 (0) 5 61 28 55 00; e-mail:


  • 1High-density populations of large herbivores are now widespread. Wildlife managers commonly attempt to control large herbivores through hunting to meet specific management objectives, considering population density as the minimal key source of information. Here, we review the problems of censusing populations of large herbivores and describe an alternative approach, employing indicators of ecological change.
  • 2Estimating density of large herbivores with high precision and accuracy is difficult, especially over large areas, and requires considerable investment of time, people and money. Management decisions are often made on an annual basis, informed by population changes over the previous year. However, estimating year-to-year changes in density is not a realistic goal for most large herbivores. Furthermore, population density per se provides no information on the relationship between the population and its habitat.
  • 3For successful management of large herbivores, we need to consider not only the fate of the population, but rather changes in both population and habitat features, as well as their interaction. Managers require information on trends in both the animal population and habitat quality in order to interpret changes in the interaction between these two compartments.
  • 4We propose that a set of indicators of animal performance, population abundance, habitat quality and/or herbivore habitat impact provides relevant information on the population–habitat system. Monitoring temporal changes in these indicators provides a new basis for setting hunting quotas to achieve specific management objectives. This sort of adaptive management is employed widely in France for managing roe deer Capreolus capreolus.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. The management of large herbivores would be improved by investing fewer resources in trying to estimate the absolute abundance of ungulates, and more resources in collecting additional data to inform understanding of the ecological status of the ungulate–habitat system being managed. This paper presents a set of indicators of ecological change for monitoring the interaction between a population and its habitat as a basis for adaptive management to attain explicit goals and to improve knowledge of the system. This approach could improve management for a variety of large herbivores, by harmonizing actions at wide spatial scales.