Quantifying Extinction Probabilities from Sighting Records: Inference and Uncertainties
Methods are needed to estimate the probability that a population is extinct, whether to underpin decisions regarding the continuation of a invasive species eradication program, or to decide whether further searches for a rare and endangered species could be warranted. Current models for inferring extinction probability based on sighting data typically assume a constant or declining sighting rate. We develop methods to analyse these models in a Bayesian framework to estimate detection and survival probabilities of a population conditional on sighting data. We note, however, that the assumption of a constant or declining sighting rate may be hard to justify, especially for incursions of invasive species with potentially positive population growth rates. We therefore explored introducing additional process complexity via density-dependent survival and detection probabilities, with population density no longer constrained to be constant or decreasing. These models were applied to sparse carcass discoveries associated with the recent incursion of the European red fox (Vulpes vulpes) into Tasmania, Australia. While a simple model provided apparently precise estimates of parameters and extinction probability, estimates arising from the more complex model were much more uncertain, with the sparse data unable to clearly resolve the underlying population processes. The outcome of this analysis was a much higher possibility of population persistence. We conclude that if it is safe to assume detection and survival parameters are constant, then existing models can be readily applied to sighting data to estimate extinction probability. If not, methods reliant on these simple assumptions are likely overstating their accuracy, and their use to underpin decision-making potentially fraught. Instead, researchers will need to more carefully specify priors about possible population processes.