Protecting habitat connectivity is a common approach to the conservation of biodiversity. The challenge is to design landscapes that satisfy the (often quite different) ecological needs of many species and can provide habitat in the future despite global change. New research by Albert et al. solves this problem by introducing a framework based on network methods. The framework identifies regional-scale habitat networks that maintain connectivity for many different species, and that remain connected under different scenarios of climate and land-use change.
The main message is that optimizing networks of protected areas for connectivity alongside habitat quality slows the breakdown of sparse habitat networks, even in landscapes where land-use change and climate change are ongoing. For example, protecting the top 17% of the regional area (Aichi Target 11) based on prioritizing for habitat quality and connectivity could lead to a retention of up to 72% of all conservation criteria.
We recommend three network design principles should be adopted: 1. Combine multiple measures of connectivity and habitat quality for an ecologically diverse range of species; 2. Functional connectivity should be multi-scale and include different dispersal needs (short and long range); and 3. Realistic scenario-based projections of climate and land-use change should be used to guide prioritization and so future-proof the network.
We applied the framework to a set of fourteen vertebrate focal species inhabiting the region around Montreal, Canada. The project achieved two outcomes: 1. It compared how balancing species-specific requirements for habitat quality, short- and long-range connectivity, and climate suitability modifies conservation priorities; and 2. It tested the effectiveness of different conservation scenarios at maintaining habitat connectivity into the future.
An active engagement throughout the project with many stakeholders lead to connecting and implementing a disparate array of local conservation initiatives into a single regional-network vision for green infrastructures in and around Montreal. This new framework can be applied to any city or region where connectivity is critically low. The flexibility of the framework means it is easy to add other conservation criteria, such as protecting connectivity for ecosystem services.
Albert, C. H., Rayfield B., Dumitru M. & Gonzalez A. 2017. Applying network theory to prioritize multi-species habitat networks that are robust to climate and land-use change. Conservation Biology. .