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Using environmental heterogeneity to plan for sea‐level rise

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Environmental heterogeneity is increasingly being used to select conservation areas that will provide for future biodiversity under a variety of climate scenarios. This approach, termed conserving nature's stage (CNS), assumes environmental features respond to climate change more slowly than biological communities, but will CNS be effective if the stage were to change as rapidly as the climate? We tested the effectiveness of using CNS to select sites in salt marshes for conservation in coastal Georgia (U.S.A.), where environmental features will change rapidly as sea level rises. We calculated species diversity based on distributions of 7 bird species with a variety of niches in Georgia salt marshes. Environmental heterogeneity was assessed across six landscape gradients (e.g., elevation, salinity, and patch area). We used 2 approaches to select sites with high environmental heterogeneity: site complementarity (environmental diversity [ED]) and local environmental heterogeneity (environmental richness [ER]). Sites selected based on ER predicted present‐day species diversity better than randomly selected sites (up to an 8.1% improvement), were resilient to areal loss from SLR (1.0% average areal loss by 2050 compared with 0.9% loss of randomly selected sites), and provided habitat to a threatened species (0.63 average occupancy compared with 0.6 average occupancy of randomly selected sites). Sites selected based on ED predicted species diversity no better or worse than random and were not resilient to SLR (2.9% average areal loss by 2050). Despite the discrepancy between the 2 approaches, CNS is a viable strategy for conservation site selection in salt marshes because the ER approach was successful. It has potential for application in other coastal areas where SLR will affect environmental features, but its performance may depend on the magnitude of geological changes caused by SLR. Our results indicate that conservation planners that had heretofore excluded low‐lying coasts from CNS planning could include coastal ecosystems in regional conservation strategies.
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Keywords: aves; birds; cambio climático; climate change; conservación del estado de la naturaleza; conserving nature's stage; diseño de reservas; diversidad de especies; marisma de agua salobre; reserve design; salt marsh; species diversity

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2017

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