Increasing human populations have fueled urban development and land conversion, causing substantial loss and fragmentation of wildlife habitat. In addition, climate change is expected to drive large-scale shifts in ecological conditions and geographic shifts in vegetation types.
Rocky Mountain Research Station scientists hypothesize that: 1) the interaction of these two major ecological stressors will result in complex patterns of habitat loss and fragmentation, and 2) managers will need rigorous information on how these dominant stressors might impact a range of native wildlife species.
Researchers completed phase I of this project in 2010, which focused on the development of the universal corridor network simulator (UNICOR), a tool to predict habitat area, fragmentation, and corridor connectivity under current land use activities (Landguth et al. 2012).
Phase II began in fall of 2011 to evaluate specific habitat conditions for three terrestrial animals in the Great Plains - the swift fox (Vulpes velox), lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), and massasuaga (Sistrurus catenatus). Researchers also assessed the utility of selected species to act as indicator, surrogate, or umbrella species to provide connectivity for other species, and they considered the ability of the network of protected lands to provide protection for habitat connectivity.
Researchers found that species’ dispersal ability plays a larger role than its landscape resistance in determining connectivity, where resistance is a quantitative estimate of how environmental conditions (e.g., land cover, land use, topography) affect animal movement. Species with large dispersal abilities, such as the lesser-prairie chickens and swift fox, may fare better than other species with low dispersal abilities, such as massasauga rattlesnakes.
When species have disparate habitat needs, dispersal abilities, and sensitivity to fragmentation, it might be difficult to use “umbrella species” to protect connectivity for a suite of species. Specific information on habitat needs and connectivity issues for multiple species can better inform habitat management at landscape scales.