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Predictive multi-scale occupancy models at range-wide extents: Effects of habitat and human disturbance on distributions of wetland birds

October 21, 2019


Predicting distributions is fundamental to ecology, yet hindered by spatially restricted sampling, scale-dependent relationships and detection error associated with field surveys. Predictive species distribution models (SDMs) are nonetheless vital for conservation of many species. We developed a framework for building predictive SDMs with multi-scale data and used it to develop range-wide breeding-season SDMs for 14 marsh bird species of concern.




We built SDMs using data from range-wide surveys conducted over 14 years, and habitat and disturbance covariates measured at multiple spatial scales. We built hierarchical occupancy models that included heterogeneity in detectability during sampling, and used Bayesian model selection to regulate model complexity (covariates and scales) based explicitly on spatial predictive abilities. We thus integrated model selection for optimizing out-of-sample prediction, range-wide sampling over broad conditions, multi-scale analyses and scale optimization, and species-specific detectability for a suite of wide-ranging species.


Distributions of marsh birds were affected by local wetland conditions, but also by agricultural, urban and hydrologic disturbances operating from local scales (100–500 m) to the watershed level. Variables measuring human disturbances improved prediction for most species, and every species was affected by attributes at >1 scale. Five species showed evidence for continental-scale range contraction during the study.

Main conclusions

We demonstrate how hierarchical occupancy models can be optimized for prediction across a species' range at the extent of a continent while also accounting for imperfect detection, and thus describe a generalizable approach that can be used for any species. We provide the first data-driven, empirical SDMs built at the range-wide extent for most of our 14 study species and demonstrate that previous studies focused on local distributions and the effects of fine-scale wetland vegetation missed important broadscale drivers of occupancy for marsh birds.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2020
Title Predictive multi-scale occupancy models at range-wide extents: Effects of habitat and human disturbance on distributions of wetland birds
DOI 10.1111/ddi.12995
Authors Bryan S. Stevens, Courtney J. Conway
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Diversity and Distributions
Series Number
Index ID 70224286
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Coop Res Unit Seattle

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