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Use of opportunistic sightings and expert knowledge to predict and compare Whooping Crane stopover habitat

Hefley, Trevor J., Baasch, David M., Tyre, Andrew J., Blankenship, Erin E.
Conservation biology 2015 v.29 no.5 pp. 1337-1346
Grus americana, biogeography, birds, data collection, endangered species, expert opinion, habitats, models, prediction, rivers, Nebraska
Predicting a species’ distribution can be helpful for evaluating management actions such as critical habitat designations under the U.S. Endangered Species Act or habitat acquisition and rehabilitation. Whooping Cranes (Grus americana) are one of the rarest birds in the world, and conservation and management of habitat is required to ensure their survival. We developed a species distribution model (SDM) that could be used to inform habitat management actions for Whooping Cranes within the state of Nebraska (U.S.A.). We collated 407 opportunistic Whooping Crane group records reported from 1988 to 2012. Most records of Whooping Cranes were contributed by the public; therefore, developing an SDM that accounted for sampling bias was essential because observations at some migration stopover locations may be under represented. An auxiliary data set, required to explore the influence of sampling bias, was derived with expert elicitation. Using our SDM, we compared an intensively managed area in the Central Platte River Valley with the Niobrara National Scenic River in northern Nebraska. Our results suggest, during the peak of migration, Whooping Crane abundance was 262.2 (90% CI 40.2−3144.2) times higher per unit area in the Central Platte River Valley relative to the Niobrara National Scenic River. Although we compared only 2 areas, our model could be used to evaluate any region within the state of Nebraska. Furthermore, our expert‐informed modeling approach could be applied to opportunistic presence‐only data when sampling bias is a concern and expert knowledge is available.