Fine-scale movement decisions by a large carnivore inform conservation planning in human-dominated landscapes

Abstract

Context

Developed landscapes are increasingly important movement habitat for many large carnivore populations, despite fragmentation and heightened anthropogenic risks. The availability of vegetation cover is a key factor mediating carnivore use of human-dominated landscapes. Restoring or modifying networks of vegetation patches may therefore provide an important tool for enhancing the connectivity value of developed areas, but requires understanding how vegetation patch networks are functionally linked by carnivore movement decisions, which occur at scales considerably finer than those typically addressed by connectivity analyses.

Objectives

We investigated the factors driving fine-scale movement decisions by pumas (Puma concolor) in fragmented habitats and applied our results to enhancing puma connectivity through human-dominated landscapes.

Methods

We used high-resolution data on vegetation cover and puma locations from central California to model puma habitat selection at the scale of individual movements between vegetation patches. These results informed network-based connectivity models comparing the benefits of specific wildlife corridor restoration actions (e.g., revegetation).

Results

Puma movements between vegetation patches were driven by patch size, vegetation type, and spatial arrangement relative to sources of anthropogenic risk (buildings). Pumas avoided buildings but accepted higher building densities as patch area increased or inter-patch travel distances decreased. Connectivity modeling revealed that the strategic placement of vegetation patches can substantially reduce resistance to puma movement across an otherwise high resistance developed landscape by diversifying movement options.

Conclusion

Our results reveal the factors mediating large carnivore use of human-dominated landscapes and provide a generalizable tool for increasing movement potential via the manipulation of vegetation cover.

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Acknowledgements

We thank our partners at the Peninsula Open Space Trust, in particular N. Sharma and P. Cowan, for their support of this research and help in designing restoration scenarios. We are grateful to R. King, K. Briner, S. McCain, and P. Houghtaling for help in the field, and to A. Nisi, L. Serieys, J. Smith, O. Spiegel and three anonymous reviewers for valuable feedback on the manuscript. Funding for this work was provided by Peninsula Open Space Trust, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the National Science Foundation (Grants #1255913 and #0963022 to CCW).

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Correspondence to Justin P. Suraci.

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Suraci, J.P., Nickel, B.A. & Wilmers, C.C. Fine-scale movement decisions by a large carnivore inform conservation planning in human-dominated landscapes. Landscape Ecol 35, 1635–1649 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-020-01052-2

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Keywords

  • Step selection function
  • Movement ecology
  • Circuit theory
  • Habitat restoration
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Human disturbance