Incorporating people directly into the system under study from multiple perspectives may offer the best potential to produce meaningful conservation solutions. This approach has been characterized as coupled natural and human systems (CNH) research. It uses a multidisciplinary approach to identify important feedbacks between different components of a study system and models system complexity across organizational scales. Here we illustrate how CNH thinking and integrative modeling can be applied to understand factors affecting metapopulation dynamics of threatened Black (BLRA) inhabiting small wetlands in a working landscape in the Sierra Nevada foothills. We quantify linkages between rail metapopulation dynamics, landowner decisions, climatic variation, and disease ecology.
Landowners have increased the number of foothills wetlands, with over 2/3rds of sites receiving irrigation water and irrigation decisions affected by lifestyle choice and water costs imposed by irrigation districts. Colonization rates of BLRA were strongly affected by wetland area and secondarily by irrigation, while extinction rates were driven by isolation and area. Occupancy strongly declined after the arrival of West Nile Virus (WNV) in 2007 and due to drought from 2013-15. WNV-positive mosquito abundance and prevalence among sites varied consistently across years. These factors were integrated through an agent-based model that allows landowner irrigation decisions to affect the number, size and distribution of wetlands on the landscape. Preliminary results suggest that actions within the human system are profoundly impacting the natural system, but resulting changes in the natural system have weak feedbacks on the human system. We explored rail metapopulation dynamics on landscapes constructed to mimic wetland size and distribution prior to irrigation, with limited irrigation (1947), and with current irrigation levels (2013). The proportion, number and area of sites occupied have increased dramatically under current agricultural practices, resulting in different metapopulation dynamics and a more secure rail population.