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Elise Zipkin and Former IBIO post-doc Sarah Saunders Receive Award from Ecological Society of America for Statistical Modeling of Piping Plovers

When the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needed help boosting the Great Lakes population of piping plovers, Sarah Saunders, then a postdoctoral researcher in Elise Zipkin’s Quantitative Ecology Lab, teamed up with her to uncover threats to the endangered shorebird’s recovery. Sarah developed an analysis framework to estimate and predict the numbers of endangered plovers based on environmental variables. Their award-winning paper, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology in 2018, combines Sarah's work on statistical modeling during her postdoc, along with her Ph.D. research on piping plovers, and makes a strong case for predator control. 

“As we developed this project, I was able to take my two passions, ornithology and quantitative ecology, and put them together,” Sarah said. She is now a conservation biologist in the Science Division of the National Audubon Society and the paper’s lead author. “It’s an honor to be recognized for this work not only because it addresses an important conservation issue, but also because this paper synthesizes a lot of my accomplishments as a grad student and then as a postdoc.”

The scientific achievement lies in how the statistical model used 24 years of different data streams on plover demography and abundance in the Great Lakes region to project the future size of the population while taking multiple sources of uncertainty and potential management actions into account.

Elise, who is the paper's senior author, said, “This paper demonstrates a creative way of integrating various available data sources to understand the past and predict what might happen in the future to an imperiled species under different conservation scenarios. It’s innovative science with important real-world applications.”

Since the paper found that a population of predators would likely continue to increase, leading to a smaller number of plovers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service has adapted their control of merlins, the primary avian predator of adult plovers, at nesting locations throughout the Great Lakes.

Sarah said, “Forecasting is important, especially with endangered species, because managers deal with so much uncertainty every day. Uncertainty makes it hard for managers to confidently make decisions. With this modeling approach, we were able to provide them with probabilities of future population change based on management options, helping to guide them in the right direction.”

The predator control strategy is producing promising results. This year, one of the merlin-controlled sites hit a record number of fledged plovers. As scientists work toward piping plover recovery goals, the hope is that the statistical methods used in this research could be applied to management of other endangered species.

Francesca Cuthbert, professor at the University of Minnesota and leader of Great Lakes piping plover recovery efforts for more than 30 years, was a co-author on the paper.