Adaptive monitoring in action: reconsidering design-based estimators reveals underestimation of whitebark pine disease prevalence in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
1. Identifying and understanding status and trends in ecological indicators motivates continual monitoring over decades. Many programs rely on probability surveys and their companion design-based estimators for status assessments (e.g. Horvitz-Thompson). Design-based estimators do not easily extend to trend estimation nor situations with observation errors. Field-based monitoring efforts inevitably have turnover of field crew members which may affect consistency and accuracy of data collection over time. Additionally, design-based estimators ignore the complexities of spatial and temporal heterogeneity in an ecological indicator and how this variability may be linked to environmental or biological dynamics. We propose monitoring programs should re-evaluate their prescribed statistical methods, consider model-based approaches and adapt their sampling designs as needed to improve inferences. 2. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, home to two of the most iconic U.S. National Parks, has experienced significant declines in whitebark pine Pinus albicaulis communities due to forest pathogens, insect outbreaks, wildland fires and drought. Whitebark pine is a keystone species found in mountainous environments throughout the Western U.S. and Canada. We assessed the design-based ratio estimator originally recommended for estimating prevalence of white pine blister rust Cronartium ribicola. We compared the design-based estimator to a model-based approach that accounts for the sampling design, imperfect detection and allows for infection probabilities to vary over space and time. 3. Ignoring observation errors led to lower estimated prevalence of white pine blister rust in the general population. Using model-based approaches, we found that the probability of infection has increased since 2004. However, overall prevalence likely has not changed because of the mountain pine beetle Dendroctonus ponderosae-induced shift towards smaller diameter trees that have a lower probability of infection compared to their larger cohorts. 4. Synthesis and Applications. Using a design-based approach to detect change in ecological indicators falls short because of the inability to account for observation errors or to explore environmental or biological factors explaining temporal dynamics. Inherently understanding the mechanisms leading to changes in an ecological indicator over time informs potential management actions. Our assessment underscores the need for continued evaluation and updating of a monitoring program's sampling design and analytical procedures to maintain relevancy.