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Assessing conservation relevance of organism-environment relations using predicted changes in response variables

June 18, 2010

1. Organism–environment models are used widely in conservation. The degree to which they are useful for informing conservation decisions – the conservation relevance of these relations – is important because lack of relevance may lead to misapplication of scarce conservation resources or failure to resolve important conservation dilemmas. Even when models perform well based on model fit and predictive ability, conservation relevance of associations may not be clear without also knowing the magnitude and variability of predicted changes in response variables.

2. We introduce a method for evaluating the conservation relevance of organism–environment relations that employs confidence intervals for predicted changes in response variables. The confidence intervals are compared to a preselected magnitude of change that marks a threshold (trigger) for conservation action. To demonstrate the approach, we used a case study from the Chihuahuan Desert involving relations between avian richness and broad-scale patterns of shrubland. We considered relations for three winters and two spatial extents (1- and 2-km-radius areas) and compared predicted changes in richness to three thresholds (10%, 20% and 30% change). For each threshold, we examined 48 relations.

3. The method identified seven, four and zero conservation-relevant changes in mean richness for the 10%, 20% and 30% thresholds respectively. These changes were associated with major (20%) changes in shrubland cover, mean patch size, the coefficient of variation for patch size, or edge density but not with major changes in shrubland patch density. The relative rarity of conservation-relevant changes indicated that, overall, the relations had little practical value for informing conservation decisions about avian richness.

4. The approach we illustrate is appropriate for various response and predictor variables measured at any temporal or spatial scale. The method is broadly applicable across ecological environments, conservation objectives, types of statistical predictive models and levels of biological organization. By focusing on magnitudes of change that have practical significance, and by using the span of confidence intervals to incorporate uncertainty of predicted changes, the method can be used to help improve the effectiveness of conservation efforts.

Publication Year 2010
Title Assessing conservation relevance of organism-environment relations using predicted changes in response variables
DOI 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2010.00042.x
Authors Kevin J. Gutzwiller, Wylie C. Barrow, Joseph D. White, Lori Johnson-Randall, Brian S. Cade, Lisa M. Zygo
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Methods in Ecology and Evolution
Index ID 70118904
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse