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Predicting the spatial distribution of wintering golden eagles to inform full annual cycle conservation in western North America

January 31, 2024

Wildlife conservation strategies focused on one season or population segment may fail to adequately protect populations, especially when a species’ habitat preferences vary among seasons, age-classes, geographic regions, or other factors. Conservation of golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos) is an example of such a complex scenario, in which the distribution, habitat use, and migratory strategies of this species of conservation concern vary by age-class, reproductive status, region, and season. Nonetheless, research aimed at mapping priority use areas to inform management of golden eagles in western North America has typically focused on territory-holding adults during the breeding period, largely to the exclusion of other seasons and life-history groups. To support population-wide conservation planning across the full annual cycle for golden eagles, we developed a distribution model for individuals in a season not typically evaluated–winter–and in an area of the interior western U.S. that is a high priority for conservation of the species. We used a large GPS-telemetry dataset and library of environmental variables to develop a machine-learning model to predict spatial variation in the relative intensity of use by golden eagles during winter in Wyoming, USA, and surrounding ecoregions. Based on a rigorous series of evaluations including cross-validation, withheld and independent data, our winter-season model accurately predicted spatial variation in intensity of use by multiple age- and life-history groups of eagles not associated with nesting territories (i.e., all age classes of long-distance migrants, and resident non-adults and adult “floaters”, and movements of adult territory holders and their offspring outside their breeding territories). Important predictors in the model were wind and uplift (40.2% contribution), vegetation and landcover (27.9%), topography (14%), climate and weather (9.4%), and ecoregion (8.7%). Predicted areas of high-use winter habitat had relatively low spatial overlap with nesting habitat, suggesting a conservation strategy targeting high-use areas for one season would capture as much as half and as little as one quarter of high-use areas for the other season. The majority of predicted high-use habitat (top 10% quantile) occurred on private lands (55%); lands managed by states and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had a lower amount (33%), but higher concentration of high-use habitat than expected for their area (1.5–1.6x). These results will enable those involved in conservation and management of golden eagles in our study region to incorporate spatial prioritization of wintering habitat into their existing regulatory processes, land-use planning tasks, and conservation actions.

Publication Year 2024
Title Predicting the spatial distribution of wintering golden eagles to inform full annual cycle conservation in western North America
DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0297345
Authors Z. Wallace, Bryan Bedrosian, J Dunk, David W. LaPlante, Brian Woodbridge, B. Simth, Jessi L. Brown, Todd Lickfett, Katherine Gura, D. Bittner, R. Crandall, Robert Domenech, Todd E. Katzner, K. Kritz, S. Lewis, M. Lockhart, T. Miller, K. Quint, A. Sheading, S. Slater, D. Stahlecker
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title PLoS ONE
Index ID 70251310
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center