A quantitative approach to endangered species act classification of long-lived vertebrates: Application to the North Pacific humpback whale

Leah R. Gerber, Douglas P. DeMaster

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


The U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) mandates that recovery plans include specific criteria to determine when a species should be removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. To meet this mandate, we developed a new approach to determining classification criteria for long-lived vertebrates. The key idea is that endangerment depends on two critical aspects of a population: population size and trends in population size due to intrinsic variability in population growth rates. The way to combine these features is to identify a population size and range of population growth rates (where λ denotes the annual multiplicative rate of change of a population) above which there is a negligible probability of extinction. To do so, (1) information on the current population size and its variance is specified; (2) available information on vital rates or changes in abundance over time is used to generate a probability distribution for the population's λ; (3) the lower fifth percentile value for λ (denoted as λ(0.05) is obtained from the frequency distribution of λs; and (4) if A(0.05) is <1.0, a backwards population trajectory starting at 500 individuals for a period of 10 years is performed and the resulting population size is designated as the threshold for listing a species as endangered, or if λ(0.05) is ≥1.0, the threshold for endangerment is set at 500 animals. A similar approach can be used to determine the threshold for listing a species as threatened under the ESA. We applied this approach to North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and used Monte Carlo simulations to produce a frequency distribution of λs for the whales under three different scenarios. Using λ(0.05) it was determined that the best estimates of current abundance for the central population of North Pacific humpback whales were larger than the estimated threshold for endangered status but less than the estimated threshold for threatened status. If accepted by the responsible management agency, this analysis would be consistent with a recommendation to downlist the central stock of humpback whales to a status of threatened, whereas the status of eastern and western stocks would remain endangered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1203-1214
Number of pages12
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1999
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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