Examining the southern Great Plains for hotspots of at-risk species and assessing efficacy of a decision support tool
Resources for conservation efforts are lacking across the world. There are many species at risk due to anthropogenic landscape development and other stressors, but not enough money or time to deal with conserving each species on an individual basis. Though individual target species warrant protection, conservation efforts that address many at-risk species simultaneously maximize efficiency of time and money spent. By identifying areas where we find dense concentrations of at-risk species (i.e., hotspots), we can efficiently target our conservation efforts and resources, thus maximizing the number of species and habitat protected by a single conservation plan. This is particularly problematic in the southern Great Plains, where land cover conversion to agriculture and energy production has altered habitat for many species. Given a growing human population and therefore increasing need for food and energy production, this area is of critical conservation importance to protect over 1000 currently listed at-risk species. In the southern Great Plains, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) range-wide conservation plan exists along with a decision support tool, known as the Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool (CHAT), to protect this at-risk species. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken, already having a conservation plan in place, could act as an umbrella species if this plan subsequently protects non-target at-risk species within its range. Identifying the range-wide plan and CHAT as a multi-species approach could bolster its importance and efficiency. In Chapter I, I provided an overview of previous biodiversity hotspot research, agricultural land conversion, and at-risk species in the southern Great Plains. I discussed how anthropogenic pressures have resulted in land conversion and habitat loss or fragmentation, which are the leading causes of species declines. These pressures have resulted in many species being designated at a state level as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). I posited how identifying areas of dense concentrations of SGCNs can create a biodiversity hotspot map that will be useful for management agencies in considering where to target future conservation efforts. I also explained the use of umbrella species and create a framework of how the Lesser Prairie-Chicken (LPC) and the range-wide plan and decision support tool (CHAT) could potentially serve dual purpose protection for non-target SGCNs. Chapter II focuses on defining hotspots of biodiversity – defined as dense concentrations of Species of Greatest Conservation Need – in my study area. Existing range files for at-risk vertebrate species were overlaid to identify these biodiversity hotspots. I discussed general areas where these hotspots occur and examined the land ownership underlying these hotspots. Maps of biodiversity hotspots and land ownership analyses were produced so that land managers may have valuable information that helps them approach how to address conservation of at-risk species in the Great Plains. Hotspots for current, pending, and combined (current and pending) Species of Greatest Conservation Need were found to occur mostly on state or federal managed land and high density hotspots occur along eastern New Mexico and Colorado. In Chapter III, I assessed whether the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, through its habitat protected by an existing range-wide plan, acts as an umbrella species. I addressed habitat use and ecoregion occupation on a per-species basis to determine if habitats were overlapping with the LPC by chance or by similar habitat requirements in a focal area of Bird Conservation Regions 18 and 19. In this way I assayed whether the CHAT tool serves in protecting non-target species and can be considered a multi-species support tool for conservation. It turns out that the CHAT tool also covers more than 100 at-risk species ranges, some of which have similar habitat requirements as the LPC. This information will help management agencies in future planning for the conservation of all species at risk in the southern Great Plains.