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Conflation and aggregation of spatial data improve predictive models for species with limited habitats: A case of the threatened yellow-billed cuckoo in Arizona, USA

Villarreal, Miguel L., van Riper, Charles, Petrakis, Roy E.
Applied geography 2014 v.47 pp. 57-69
breeding sites, data collection, geography, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, habitat preferences, models, planning, prediction, riparian areas, spatial data, spatial distribution, surveys, vegetation, vertebrates, watersheds, wildlife habitats, Arizona
Riparian vegetation provides important wildlife habitat in the southwestern United States, but limited distributions and spatial complexity often leads to inaccurate representation in maps used to guide conservation. We test the use of data conflation and aggregation on multiple vegetation/land-cover maps to improve the accuracy of habitat models for the threatened western yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus occidentalis). We used species observations (n = 479) from a state-wide survey to develop habitat models from 1) three vegetation/land-cover maps produced at different geographic scales ranging from state to national, and 2) new aggregate maps defined by the spatial agreement of cover types, which were defined as high (agreement = all data sets), moderate (agreement ≥ 2), and low (no agreement required). Model accuracies, predicted habitat locations, and total area of predicted habitat varied considerably, illustrating the effects of input data quality on habitat predictions and resulting potential impacts on conservation planning. Habitat models based on aggregated and conflated data were more accurate and had higher model sensitivity than original vegetation/land-cover, but this accuracy came at the cost of reduced geographic extent of predicted habitat. Using the highest performing models, we assessed cuckoo habitat preference and distribution in Arizona and found that major watersheds containing high-probably habitat are fragmented by a wide swath of low-probability habitat. Focus on riparian restoration in these areas could provide more breeding habitat for the threatened cuckoo, offset potential future habitat losses in adjacent watershed, and increase regional connectivity for other threatened vertebrates that also use riparian corridors.