Estimates of a population’s growth rate and process variance from time-series data are often used to calculate risk metrics such as the probability of quasi-extinction, but temporal correlations in the data from sampling error, intrinsic population factors, or environmental conditions can bias process variance estimators and detrimentally affect risk predictions. It has been claimed (McNamara and Harding, Ecol Lett 7:16–20, 2004) that estimates of the long-term variance that incorporate observed temporal correlations in population growth are unaffected by sampling error; however, no estimation procedures were proposed for time-series data. We develop a suite of such long-term variance estimators, and use simulated data with temporally autocorrelated population growth and sampling error to evaluate their performance. In some cases, we get nearly unbiased long-term variance estimates despite ignoring sampling error, but the utility of these estimators is questionable because of large estimation uncertainty and difficulties in estimating correlation structure in practice. Process variance estimators that ignored temporal correlations generally gave more precise estimates of the variability in population growth and of the probability of quasi-extinction. We also found that the estimation of probability of quasi-extinction was greatly improved when quasi-extinction thresholds were set relatively close to population levels. Because of precision concerns, we recommend using simple models for risk estimates despite potential biases, and limiting inference to quantifying relative risk; e.g., changes in risk over time for a single population or comparative risk among populations.
Environmental correlationsExponential population growthMeasurement errorModel errorPopulation monitoringPopulation viability analysisViable population monitoring