The role of demographic compensation theory in incidental take assessments for endangered species

Conor P. McGowan, Mark R. Ryan, Michael C. Runge, Joshua J. Millspaugh, Jean Fitts Cochrane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many endangered species laws provide exceptions to legislated prohibitions through incidental take provisions as long as take is the result of unintended consequences of an otherwise legal activity. These allowances presumably invoke the theory of demographic compensation, commonly applied to harvested species, by allowing limited harm as long as the probability of the species' survival or recovery is not reduced appreciably. Demographic compensation requires some density-dependent limits on survival or reproduction in a species' annual cycle that can be alleviated through incidental take. Using a population model for piping plovers in the Great Plains, we found that when the population is in rapid decline or when there is no density dependence, the probability of quasi-extinction increased linearly with increasing take. However, when the population is near stability and subject to density-dependent survival, there was no relationship between quasi-extinction probability and take rates. We note however, that a brief examination of piping plover demography and annual cycles suggests little room for compensatory capacity. We argue that a population's capacity for demographic compensation of incidental take should be evaluated when considering incidental allowances because compensation is the only mechanism whereby a population can absorb the negative effects of take without incurring a reduction in the probability of survival in the wild. With many endangered species there is probably little known about density dependence and compensatory capacity. Under these circumstances, using multiple system models (with and without compensation) to predict the population's response to incidental take and implementing follow-up monitoring to assess species response may be valuable in increasing knowledge and improving future decision making.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)730-737
Number of pages8
JournalBiological Conservation
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Charadrius melodus
  • Compensation
  • Endangered species
  • Piping plover
  • Population modeling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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