Metapopulation Ecology and Recovery of the Endangered Lower Keys Marsh Rabbit
Schmidt, Paige McGee
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The Lower Keys marsh rabbit (LKMR, Sylvilagus palustris hefneri), a subspecies of marsh rabbit endemic to the Lower Keys, Florida, is threatened with extinction due to extensive coastal development of salt marsh habitats. LKMR recovery is limited by habitat loss and degradation from brush encroachment, predation by freeroaming cats (Felis catus) and raccoons (Procyon lotor), sea-level rise, and hurricanes. This study sought to determine local and landscape factors that influence LKMR metapopulation ecology and dynamics and to evaluate strategies for their recovery. I evaluated the influence of patch and landscape characteristics on LKMR densities, extinction, and colonization rates following Hurricane Wilma, and the response of LKMRs and salt marsh habitats to prescribed fire. I used estimates of population change based on annual monitoring data to validate vital rates, constructed a spatially explicit demographic model to evaluate various levels and spatial configurations of recovery scenarios implemented throughout the LKMRs range, and validated expected changes in parameter estimates using measures of habitat degradation and raccoon activity from known LKMR populations. I found LKMR densities were higher in patches with greater numbers of bunchgrasses and forbs and less edge and lower in patches with higher measures of raccoon activity. In response to a hurricane, I found the distance between LKMR patches and the coast had a negative influence on extinction probability; the distance between an extirpated and occupied LKMR patch had a negative influence on colonization probability and patch size had a positive influence. Adult LKMRs increased as woody cover <0.5 m decreased, herbaceous cover <0.5 m increased, and food availability increased in at least one site following prescribed fire. Model results indicated habitat management actions that improve carrying capacity of local rabbit populations and juvenile survival and control raccoon populations to increase rabbit reproductive rates are effective population recovery strategies. In total, my results provide a conservation planning tool that can be used to select recovery strategies and locations that will maximize benefits to LKMRs, thus improving their viability and recovery.