Regional habitat modeling may balance forest restoration, conservation

Ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona

Recently published research highlights how trade-offs between forest restoration and species conservation can be balanced using science and strong partnerships among multiple organizations and agencies.

The research, carried out in partnership between the Landscape Conservation Initiative at Northern Arizona University and the nonprofit Conservation Science Partners, presents a regional-scale modeling framework that land managers can use to make decisions about forest and habitat conditions for sensitive species.

The northern goshawk is a management indicator species. (Photo Courtesy United States Forest Service.)
The northern goshawk is a management indicator species. (Photo courtesy United States Forest Service.)

Articles in Landscape Ecology and Forest Ecology and Management illustrate the approach by applying it to the high-profile case of the northern goshawk in northern Arizona.

Conflicts have arisen over restoration and hazardous fuels reduction treatments in vast areas of ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona because the forests, while at risk of severe fires, are also the habitat of the northern goshawk. The raptor is a sensitive species in the Southwestern Region of the United States Forest Service and a management indicator species for several national forests.

A lack of scientific consensus and conflicting interpretations about habitat requirements for the goshawk have resulted in administrative appeals and litigation of proposed management actions on public lands. The result is that management actions are deferred, putting the habitats of the goshawk and other species at risk of destructive fires.

Brett Dickson, NAU associate research professor and co-director of the Lab of Landscape Ecology and Conservation Biology, worked with a diverse group of collaborators to address the challenge of incorporating the conservation of a single species into landscape-scale land management. The team derived a high-resolution spatial model and map predicting the likelihood of regional occurrence of goshawk territories. The model can be used to inform land management planning and to evaluate forest management alternatives in a scenario-based framework that explores how alternative management approaches might be expected to affect the species’ habitat.

Chris Ray, senior research specialist at NAU, led efforts to apply the model to evaluate the effects of three potential alternative forest restoration treatments on goshawk territories across the Kaibab Plateau, then compared the results to those from pretreatment conditions. The researchers also applied the model to the 2006 Warm Fire area to determine the effects of severe wildfire on goshawk habitat. The results showed that all modeled forest treatments reduced predicted goshawk territory occurrence across some parts of the study area, but suitable goshawk habitat was always maintained after treatment. The effects of alternative treatments were not as severe as the habitat loss due to severe wildfire.

The study demonstrates that modeling alternative management scenarios can help to inform decisions involving tradeoffs between the objectives of fire risk reduction through forest restoration and the risk of degrading habitat for sensitive wildlife species, complex problems that have held up much-needed management actions for years.