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Distribution model transferability for a wide‐ranging species, the Gray Wolf

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Using existing data can be a reliable and cost-effective way to predict species distributions, and particularly useful for recovering or expanding species. We developed a current gray wolf (Canis lupus) distribution model for the western Great Lakes region, USA, and evaluated the spatial transferability of single-state models to the region. This study is the first assessment of transferability in a wide-ranging carnivore, as well as one of few developed for large spatial extents. We collected 3500 wolf locations from winter surveys in Minnesota (2017–2019), Wisconsin (2019–2020), and Michigan (2017–2020). We included 10 variables: proportion of natural cover, pastures, and crops; distance to natural cover, agriculture, developed land, and water; major and minor road density; and snowfall (1-km res.). We created a regional ensemble distribution by weight-averaging eight models based on their performance. We also developed single-state models, and estimated spatial transferability using two approaches: state cross-validation and extrapolation. We assessed performance by quantifying correlations, receiver operating characteristic curves (ROC), sensitivities, and two niche similarity indices. The regional area estimated to be most suitable for wolves during winter (threshold=maximum sensitivity/specificity) was 106,465 ­km2 (MN= 48,083 ­km2, WI = 27,757 ­km2, MI = 30,625 ­km2) and correctly predicted 88% of wolf locations analyzed. Increasing natural cover and distance to crops were consistently important for determining regional and single-state wolf distribution. Extrapolation (vs. cross-validation) produced results with the greatest performance metrics, and were most similar to the regional model, yet good internal performance was unrelated to greater extrapolation performance. Factors influencing species distributions are scale-dependent and can vary across areas due to behavioral plasticity. When extending inferences beyond the current occurrence of individuals, assessing variation in ecology such as habitat selection, as well as methodological factors including model performance, will be critical to avoid poor scientific interpretations and develop effective conservation applications. In particular, accurate distribution models for recovering or recovered carnivores can be used to develop plans for habitat management, quantify potential of unoccupied habitat, assess connectivity modeling, and mitigate conflict, facilitating long-term species persistence.

Document: s41598-022-16121-6-1.pdf  PDF icon

Author(s): M. G.Gantchof, D. E. Beyer Jr, J. D. Erb, D. M. MacFarland, D. C. Norton, B. J. Roell, J. L. PriceTack & J. L. Belant

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