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Keywords:

  • Steller sea lion;
  • Eumetopias jubatus;
  • population viability analysis;
  • extinction risk;
  • recovery criteria

Abstract

We estimated the risk that the Steller sea lion will be extirpated in western Alaska using a population viability analysis (PVA) that combined simulations with statistically fitted models of historical population dynamics. Our analysis considered the roles that density-dependent and density-independent factors may have played in the past, and how they might influence future population dynamics. It also established functional relationships between population size, population growth rate and the risk of extinction under alternative hypotheses about population regulation and environmental variability. These functional relationships can be used to develop recovery criteria and guide research and management decisions. Life table parameters (e.g., birth and survival rates) operating during the population decline (1978–2002) were estimated by fitting simple age-structured models to time-series of pup and non-pup counts from 33 rookeries (subpopulations). The PVA was carried out by projecting all 33 subpopulations into the future using these estimated site-specific life tables (with associated uncertainties) and different assumptions about carrying capacities and the presence or absence of density-dependent population regulation. Results suggest that the overall predicted risk of extirpation of Steller sea lions as a species in western Alaska was low in the next 100 yr under all scenarios explored. However, most subpopulations of Steller sea lions had high probabilities of going extinct within the next 100 yr if trends observed during the 1990s were to continue. Two clusters of contiguous subpopulations occurring in the Unimak Pass area in the western Gulf of Alaska/eastern Aleutian Islands and the Seguam–Adak region in the central Aleutian Islands had relatively lower risks of extinction. Risks of extinction for a number of subpopulations in the Gulf of Alaska were reduced if the increases observed since the late 1990s continue into the future. The risks of subpopulations going extinct were small when density-dependent compensation in birth and survival rates was assumed, even when random stochasticity in these vital rates was introduced.