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New publication uses ensemble models to help prioritize piping plover habitats

USGS scientist Sara Zeigler partnered with Rutgers University researcher Brooke Maslo on a new publication released in Conservation Science and Practice describing an ensemble model that predicts locations of piping plover habitats. These birds are a threatened species due to habitat loss and coastal development.

Image: Piping Plover
Chicks and eggs of piping plovers. The piping plover is a small migratory shorebird listed as endangered in Canada and the U.S. Great Lakes, and threatened throughout the remainder of its U.S. breeding and winter range. Recent surveys indicate that there are only about 8,000 adults in existence.  The USGS is conducting genetics investigations to address taxonomic questions, understand the genetic structure of the population, and to shed light on past genetic bottlenecks. (Credit: Susan Haig, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

Plover habitats are very specific yet highly dynamic, changing with every storm and overwash scenario (overwash is when waves travel over the top of a dune and either flatten or alter the coastline). These events can change environmental characteristics enough to create new habitats for piping plovers – so this project aimed to identify which habitat attributes are most important and where they occur. Sara and Brooke combined two separate models into one overarching ensemble model to better predict the areas that are most important for piping plover nests. They used a combination of field data such as elevation, distance from shore, and vegetation density, along with lidar, orthoimagery (many aerial photos stitched together), and existing USGS and NOAA datasets to create the models. The core areas of predicted piping plover habitat amounted to 71.6 ha and 196.3 ha of habitat in New Jersey and New York, respectively. These results will be used to inform partners on how to best manage coastal environments to protect threatened shorebirds, balancing the needs of both wildlife and people.

This research was conducted to help prioritize the most suitable habitat for piping plovers, a threatened species. Beach environments have conflicting needs: people visit and develop coastal areas, while some areas are used for nesting shorebirds that rely on these habitats to survive and breed. This leads to a complex balancing act of protecting habitats for conservation but providing adequate space for people to use. This research should help inform managers on areas to prioritize as critical habitat for shorebirds.

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