Project explores habitat-based approach to conserving at-risk biodiversity

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI), Weyerhaeuser Company, and NCASI recently supported an assessment by NatureServe of the extent to which globally imperiled and critically imperiled species and communities are associated with generalized habitat types. Participants in the SFI are expected to protect imperiled species and communities on lands they own or manage and to provide information about their protection to landowners from whom they procure wood. However, because field surveys are sometimes lacking, the exact locations of imperiled species and communities are not always known and many of the species are difficult to identify. Imperiled species/communities could be conserved in a more cost-effective manner if they were associated with generalized habitat types that may be more easily recognized by managers, landowners, and woods workers.

The NatureServe assessment encompassed three pilot regions:  the Southeast (Coastal Plain portions of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia), Pacific Northwest (Cascades and Coast Ranges of Oregon and Washington), and Great Lakes (Northern forests of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin).  For each of the three pilot regions, NatureServe established lists of globally imperiled species and communities of conservation concern to the forest products industry, documented occurrences by county, and characterized the generalized habitat types as optimal, suitable, marginal, or unsuitable for each imperiled species/community.  Examples of generalized habitat types include NatureServe Ecological Systems, Society of American Foresters Cover Types, and the Wildlife TRACS system of Broad Habitat Types developed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  In addition, NatureServe characterized associations of imperiled species and communities with finer-scale habitat attributes such as habitat inclusions (e.g., prairies, seeps, spray cliffs, caves), hydrologic regimes, landforms (outwash terraces, plateaus), landscape characteristics (e.g., interspersion of cropland), special habitat elements (e.g., tree cavities, logs), forest structural features (e.g., open canopies, grassy ground layer, shrub layer), soil characteristics, and topographic positions (e.g., mid slopes, toe slopes).  This information was entered into a searchable Microsoft Access database which can be used to develop reports listing terrestrial imperiled species and plant communities in the pilot regions that are expected to occur in specific counties, in generalized habitat types, and in association with finer-scale habitat attributes.  The reports can be used to inform landowners, woods workers, and others of potential occurrences of imperiled species/communities on lands that they manage or from which they procure wood. 

The investigators are currently developing plans for a follow-up field test to validate this habitat-based approach for protecting imperiled species and communities.  The field test would involve selecting a specific geographic area where surveys might be conducted to verify the predicted relationships between imperiled species/communities and generalized habitat types, assessing the extent to which current management and conservation practices consider imperiled species/communities, proposing a generalized process for applying this habitat-based approach that could be applied in any location, and potentially developing management information for landowners. 

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