Due to strong top-down effects, the presence of carnivores can increase biodiversity, enhance primary productivity, limit invasive species, and even buffer against climate change. Consequently, carnivore recovery has become a global conservation priority, and a cornerstone of restoration ecology. However, while the incentives to re-establish carnivores are strong, carnivore restoration itself has proved challenging. Moreover, harnessing the ecological benefits of carnivores for ecosystem restoration will require a more comprehensive recovery framework that supplants contemporary single species approaches.
Accordingly, we have developed a “top-down” approach to carnivore-driven ecological restoration that: 1) quantifies the functional roles of carnivores in degraded ecosystems, 2) identifies mechanisms mediating competitive coexistence in degraded ecosystems, 3) outlines demographic limitations to species’ recovery, and 4) prioritizes potential source populations via genetic analyses.
To outline this ecosystem to genes approach, we have established a series of case studies that provide a framework for implementing carnivore restorations along a continuum ranging from ecosystem functionality to single-species genetics (see schematic above). Specifically, we will assess the effects of ecosystem degradation on carnivore communities and functionality using a guild of forest carnivores, while martens will continue to serve as a model carnivore for single-species recovery strategies. Ultimately, this research aims to promote both carnivore recovery and ecosystem functionality by creating a holistic framework for future researchers to implement carnivore driven ecological restorations.
This work was supported by an NSF IGERT (DGE-1144752), National Institute of Food and Agriculture, United States Department of Agriculture, Hatch Projects 1006604 & 1003605, and the University of Wisconsin Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, with the American Society of Mammalogists, the American Museum of Natural History, and the National Park Service.