Assessing the impacts of ongoing climate and anthropogenic-induced change on wildlife populations requires understanding species distributions and abundances across large spatial and temporal scales. For small or declining populations, collecting sufficient data is challenging because sample sizes are necessarily low and such species tend to be rare and/or elusive, which makes traditional analyses difficult. In particular, demographic data are often incomplete, leading to difficulties in modeling population viability, extrapolating inference at large scales, and detecting significant changes in population trends within time frames for appropriate management actions. As a result of limited data, the population dynamics of threatened species across broad spatio-temporal extents is typically inferred through independent local-scale studies or large-scale “niche” modeling of distribution data that is correlative with limited power to elucidate underlying mechanisms. Emerging integrative modeling approaches, such as integrated population models (IPMs), combine multiple data types (e.g., census, productivity, mark-recapture) into a single analysis, provide a foundation for overcoming problems of sparse or fragmentary data, and allow research to scale from local biological processes to regional-level patterns where conservation management takes place.
To introduce the organized session Advancing conservation ecology through integrative modeling approaches, we first put IPMs in the context of integrative modeling generally, then synthesize the elements, advantages, and novel insights of this modeling approach. We highlight the latest developments in IPMs that are explicitly relevant to the ecology and conservation of threatened species, including capabilities to quantify the spatial scale of management, source-sink dynamics, synchrony within metapopulations, and population density effects on demographic rates. We also outline several recent extensions of IPMs, including incorporation of environmental uncertainty, spatially explicit IPMs, two-sex IPMs, and retrospective/prospective analyses using IPM outputs. Specifically, we use our recent work modeling Great Lakes piping plover (Charadrius melodus) population viability and the efficacy of conservation management as a case study to illustrate the advanced capabilities of this modeling framework. Adoption of IPMs has led to improved detection of population declines, adaptation of targeted monitoring schemes, and refined management strategies. Continued methodological innovations of IPMs, such as incorporation of a wider set of data types (e.g., citizen science data) and coupled population-environmental models, will allow for broader applicability within the ecological and conservation sciences.