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Expert-informed habitat suitability analysis for at-risk species assessment and conservation planning

June 1, 2020

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is responsible for reviewing the biological status of hundreds of species to determine federal status designations under the Endangered Species Act. The longleaf pine Pinus palustris ecological system supports many priority at-risk species designated for review, including five species of herpetofauna: gopher tortoise Gopherus polyphemus, southern hognose snake Heterodon simus, Florida pine snake Pituophis melanoleucus mugitus, gopher frog Lithobates (Rana) capito, and striped newt Notophthalmus perstriatus. To inform status decisions and conservation planning, we developed habitat suitability models to 1) identify habitat features that best predict species presence and 2) estimate the amount and distribution of suitable habitat across each species' range under current conditions. We incorporated expert judgment from federal, state, and other partners to capture variation in ecological settings across species' ranges, prioritize predictor variables to test in models, mitigate data limitations by informing the selection of pseudoabsence points, qualitatively evaluate model estimates, and improve the likelihood that experts will trust and use model predictions for conservation. Soil characteristics, land cover, and fire interval strongly influenced habitat suitability for all species. Suitable habitat was distributed on known species strongholds, as well as private lands without known species records. Between 4.7% (gopher frog) and 14.6% (gopher tortoise) of the area in a species' range was classified as suitable habitat, and between 28.1% (southern hognose snake) and 47.5% (gopher frog) of suitable habitat was located in patches larger than 1 km2 (100 ha) on publicly owned lands. By overlaying predictions for each species, we identified areas of suitable habitat for multiple species on protected and unprotected lands. These results have direct applications to management and conservation planning: partners can tailor site-level management based on attributes associated with high habitat suitability for species of concern; allocate survey effort in areas with suitable habitat but no known species records; and identify priority areas for management, land acquisitions, or other strategies based on the distribution of species records, suitable habitat, and land protection status. These results can aid regional partners in implementing effective conservation strategies and inform status designation decisions of the USFWS.

Publication Year 2020
Title Expert-informed habitat suitability analysis for at-risk species assessment and conservation planning
DOI 10.3996/092019-JFWM-075
Authors Brian A. Crawford, John C. Maerz, Clinton T. Moore
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management
Index ID 70228352
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Atlanta