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The Importance of Being Spatial (and Reserved): Assessing Northern Spotted Owl Habitat Relationships with Hierarchical Bayesian Models

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Regional conservation planning increasingly draws on habitat suitability models to support decisions regarding land allocation and management. Nevertheless, statistical techniques commonly used for developing such models may give misleading results because they fail to account for 3 factors common in data sets of species distribution: spatial autocorrelation, the large number of sites where the species is absent (zero inflation), and uneven survey effort. We used spatial autoregressive models fit with Bayesian Markov Chain Monte Carlo techniques to assess the relationship between older coniferous forest and the abundance of Northern Spotted Owl nest and activity sites throughout the species' range. The spatial random-effect term incorporated in the autoregressive models successfully accounted for zero inflation and reduced the effect of survey bias on estimates of species–habitat associations. Our results support the hypothesis that the relationship between owl distribution and older forest varies with latitude. A quadratic relationship between owl abundance and older forest was evident in the southern portion of the range, and a pseudothreshold relationship was evident in the northern portion of the range. Our results suggest that proposed changes to the network of owl habitat reserves would reduce the proportion of the population protected by up to one-third, and that proposed guidelines for forest management within reserves underestimate the proportion of older forest associated with maximum owl abundance and inappropriately generalize threshold relationships among subregions. Bayesian spatial models can greatly enhance the utility of habitat analysis for conservation planning because they add the statistical flexibility necessary for analyzing regional survey data while retaining the interpretability of simpler models.
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Keywords: Bayesian inference; Northwest Forest Plan; Plan Forestal del Noroeste; Spotted Owl; Strix occidentalis; búho; especies focales; focal species; habitat relationships; inferencia Bayesiana; modelos de distribución de especies; relaciones del hábitat; spatial autoregressive model; species distribution model

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Klamath Center for Conservation Research, Orleans, CA 95556, U.S.A., Email: [email protected] 2: National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, 7600 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, U.S.A.

Publication date: August 1, 2008

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