Management and conservation of populations of animals requires information on where they are, why they are there, and where else they could be. These objectives are typically approached by collecting data on the animals' use of space, relating these positional data to prevailing environmental conditions and employing the resulting statistical models to predict usage at other geographical regions. Technical advances in wildlife telemetry have accomplished manifold increases in the amount and quality of available data, creating the need for a statistical framework that can use them to make population-level inferences for habitat preference and space-use. This has been slow-in-coming because wildlife telemetry data are spatio-temporally autocorrelated, often unbalanced, presence-only observations of behaviourally complex animals, responding to a multitude of cross-correlated environmental variables.
We review the evolution of regression models for the analysis of space-use and habitat preference and outline the essential features of a framework that emerges naturally from these foundations. This allows us to derive a relationship between usage of points in geographical space and preference of habitats in environmental space. Within this framework, we discuss eight challenges, inherent in the spatial analysis of telemetry data and, for each, we propose solutions that can work in tandem. Specifically, we propose a logistic, mixed-effects approach that uses generalized additive transformations of the environmental covariates and is fitted to a response data-set comprising the telemetry and simulated observations, under a case-control design.
We apply this framework to a non-trivial case-study using satellite-tagged grey seals Halichoerus grypus from the east coast of Scotland. We perform model selection by cross-validation and confront our final model's predictions with telemetry data from the same, as well as different, geographical regions. We conclude that, despite the complex behaviour of the study species, flexible empirical models can capture the environmental relationships that shape population distributions.