When to end releases in reintroduction programmes: demographic rates and population viability analysis of bearded vultures in the Alps.
Reintroductions are commonly used for re-establishing self-sustainable populations in formerly inhabited areas. Reintroductions are expensive, and thus, it is worth performing a thorough demographic analysis of current and likely future population trajectories to guide strategic decisions on release policy. Bearded vultures Gypaetus barbatus were exterminated from the Alps in the late 19th century, mainly due to human persecution. To re-establish them, captive-bred young have been released annually since 1986. Since the first successful breeding in the wild in 1997, the population has increased to 9 pairs in 2006. It is not known, however, for how long releases should be continued to obtain a self-sustaining, viable population. We estimated age-specific survival probabilities with a mark-resighting model and quantified fecundity rates of released individuals. Using the resulting demographic estimates, we built a stochastic population model to estimate population growth rates, and explored the value of continuing to release birds for varying periods into the future. Annual survival probabilities were high (first year of life, 0.88; later years, 0.96); average annual fecundity was 0.6 fledglings per breeding pair. Using the estimated survival probabilities, projected population growth rates would increase with additional years of releases. Yet, the population would grow, even if releases had stopped after 2006. Only if mortality increased by ≥50% would the population start to decline. Synthesis and applications. Our population dynamics model provides essential information to optimize decision-making within a major reintroduction programme. From a demographic viewpoint, releases of captive-raised bearded vultures can be ceased in the Alps. The resources freed could be redirected towards a close demographic surveillance of the free-ranging population, with periodic evaluation of its viability and the option to release birds if deemed necessary. Birds available from the captive stock could be used for reintroductions in other areas where the bearded vulture is extinct.