Crawford, B. A., J. C. Maerz, and C. T. Moore. 2020. Expert-informed habitat suitability analysis for at-risk species assessment and conservation planning. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 11:130-150. https://doi.org/10.3996/092019-JFWM-075
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 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 pseudo-absence points, qualitatively evaluate model estimates, and improve the likelihood that experts will trust and use model predictions for conservation. Habitat suitability for all species was strongly influenced by soil characteristics, land cover, and fire interval. 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 listing decisions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.