Pearman-Gillman, S, J. E. Katz, R. Mickey, J. Murdoch, and T. Donovan. 2020. Predicting wildlife distribution patterns in New England USA with expert elicitation techniques. Global Ecology and Conservation 21:e00853.
Understanding the impacts of landscape change on species distributions can help inform decision-making and conservation planning. Unfortunately, empirical data that span large spatial extents across multiple taxa are limited. In this study, we used expert elicitation techniques to develop species distribution models (SDMs) for harvested wildlife species (n = 10) in the New England region of the northeastern United States. We administered an online survey that elicited opinions from wildlife experts on the probability of species occurrence throughout the study region. We collected 3396 probability of occurrence estimates from 46 experts, and used linear mixed-effects methods and landcover variables at multiple spatial extents to develop SDMs. The models were in general agreement with the literature and provided effect sizes for variables that shape species occurrence. With the exception of gray fox, models performed well when validated against crowdsourced empirical data. We applied models to rasters (30 × 30 m cells) of the New England region to map each species’ distribution. Average regional occurrence probability was highest for coyote (0.92) and white-tailed deer (0.89) and lowest for gray fox (0.42) and moose (0.52). We then stacked distribution maps of each species to estimate and map focal species richness. Species richness (s) varied across New England, with highest average richness in the least developed states of Vermont (s = 7.47) and Maine (s = 7.32), and lowest average richness in the most developed states of Rhode Island (s = 6.13) and Massachusetts (s = 6.61). Our expert-based approach provided relatively inexpensive, comprehensive information that would have otherwise been difficult to obtain given the spatial extent and range of species being assessed. The results provide valuable information about the current distribution of wildlife species and offer a means of exploring how climate and land-use change may impact wildlife in the future.