1. Population dynamics are the result of an interplay between extrinsic and intrinsic environmental drivers. Predicting the effects of environmental change on wildlife populations therefore requires a thorough understanding of the mechanisms through which different environmental drivers interact to generate changes in population size and structure.
2. In this study, we disentangled the roles of temperature, food availability and population density in shaping short‐ and long‐term population dynamics of the African striped mouse, a small rodent inhabiting a semidesert with high intra‐ and interannual variation in environmental conditions.
3. We parameterized a female‐only stage‐structured matrix population model with vital rates depending on temperature, food availability and population density, using monthly mark–recapture data from 1609 mice trapped over 9 years (2005–2014). We then applied perturbation analyses to determine relative strengths and demographic pathways of these drivers in affecting population dynamics. Furthermore, we used stochastic population projections to gain insights into how three different climate change scenarios might affect size, structure and persistence of this population.
4. We identified food availability, acting through reproduction, as the main driver of changes in both short‐ and long‐term population dynamics. This mechanism was mediated by strong density feedbacks, which stabilized the population after high peaks and allowed it to recover from detrimental crashes. Density dependence thus buffered the population against environmental change, and even adverse climate change scenarios were predicted to have little effect on population persistence (extinction risk over 100 years <5%) despite leading to overall lower abundances.
5. Explicitly linking environment–demography relationships to population dynamics allowed us to accurately capture past population dynamics. It further enabled establishing the roles and relative importances of extrinsic and intrinsic environmental drivers, and we conclude that doing this is essential when investigating impacts of climate change on wildlife populations.