Grassland intactness outcompetes species as a more efficient surrogate in conservation design

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Mapped representations of species−habitat relationships often underlie approaches to prioritize area-based conservation strategies to meet conservation goals for biodiversity. Generally a single surrogate species is used to inform conservation design, with the assumption that conservation actions for an appropriately selected species will confer benefits to a broader community of organisms. Emerging conservation frameworks across western North America are now relying on derived measures of intactness from remotely sensed vegetation data, wholly independent from species data. Understanding the efficacy of species-agnostic planning approaches is a critical step to ensuring the robustness of emerging conservation designs. We developed an approach to quantify ‘strength of surrogacy’, by applying prioritization algorithms to previously developed species models, and measuring their coverage provided to a broader wildlife community. We used this inference to test the relative surrogacy among a suite of species models used for conservation targeting in the endangered grasslands of the Northern Sagebrush Steppe, where careful planning can help stem the loss of private grazing lands to cultivation. In this test, we also derived a simpler surrogate of intact rangelands without species data for conservation targeting, along with a measure of combined migration representative of key areas for connectivity. Our measure of intactness vastly outperformed any species model as a surrogate for conservation, followed by that of combined migration, highlighting the efficacy of strategies that target large and intact rangeland cores for wildlife conservation and restoration efforts.

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