Development and field validation of a regional, management- scale habitat model: A koala Phascolarctos cinereus case study
Bradley Law,1 Gabriele Caccamo,1 Paul Roe,2 Anthony Truskinger,2 Traecey Brassil,1 Leroy Gonsalves,1 Anna McConville,3 Matthew Stanton4
1NSW Department of Industry-Lands and Forestry, Forest Science Unit, Parramatta, NSW, Australia
2Science and Engineering Faculty, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Qld, Australia
3EchoEcology, Sydney, NSW, Australia
4Niche Environment and Heritage, Sydney, NSW, Australia
Species distribution models have great potential to efficiently guide management for threatened species, especially for those that are rare or cryptic. We used MaxEnt to develop a regional- scale model for the koala Phascolarctos cinereus at a resolution (250 m) that could be used to guide management. To ensure the model was fit for purpose, we placed emphasis on validating the model using independently- collected field data. We reduced substantial spatial clustering of records in coastal urban areas using a 2- km spatial filter and by modeling separately two subregions separated by the 500- m elevational contour. A bias file was prepared that accounted for variable survey effort. Frequency of wildfire, soil type, floristics and elevation had the highest relative contribution to the model, while a number of other variables made minor contributions. The model was effective in discriminating different habitat suitability classes when compared with koala records not used in modeling. We validated the MaxEnt model at 65 ground- truth sites using independent data on koala occupancy (acoustic sampling) and habitat quality (browse tree availability). Koala bellows (n = 276) were analyzed in an occupancy modeling framework, while site habitat quality was indexed based on browse trees. Field validation demonstrated a linear increase in koala occupancy with higher modeled habitat suitability at ground- truth sites. Similarly, a site habitat quality index at ground- truth sites was correlated positively with modeled habitat suitability. The MaxEnt model provided a better fit to estimated koala occupancy than the site- based habitat quality index, probably because many variables were considered simultaneously by the model rather than just browse species. The positive relationship of the model with both site occupancy and habitat quality indicates that the model is fit for application at relevant management scales. Field- validated models of similar resolution would assist in guiding management of conservation- dependent species.