Spatially-explicit conservation planning
Large-scale changes in land cover including climate change and urbanization have had significant impacts of species populations and distributions. Effective use of conservation resources means deliberately planning the landscape rather than conserving areas that are of least value to people. I will continue my work using species distribution and connectivity models to quantify the conservation value of landscapes for various taxa. Models of future climate conditions are now available which will allow me to predict species range shifts and integrate these into current conservation plans, to highlight particularly vulnerable populations or areas, or to modify the shape of a conserved area so that a species can adapt to climate change. My dissertation research involved developing a new technique that evaluated landscapes for their potential for avian conservation. I continued this work during my post-doctoral position at the University of Maine where I assembled important conservation areas for reptiles and amphibians. This research field is particularly suitable for student projects because of the wide diversity of spatial data layers publicly available.
Experts, stakeholders and the importance of decision support tools
My first conservation biology professor noted that conservation is more about managing people than about managing the plants and animals. I integrate this philosophy into my research in two ways. First, and most essentially, I work with stakeholders to ensure my work is valuable to them. For example, during my dissertation, I worked with regional government biologists to select focal species to serve as surrogates for conservation efforts. Second, subject experts also play an important role in my research because they often have unpublished or local level data that is not represented in the published literature. I have worked with experts at my previous position to assemble a detailed habitat-species matrix for species distribution modelling and at my current position to design our decision support tool, FishWerks (greatlakesconnectivity.org). Decision support tools provide a way to communicate and explore the complexity of a problem with stakeholders and are a key aspect of how I attempt to bridge the gap that can exist between conservation research and practice. Because there is a broad range of products that can work as decision support tools, from simple static maps to complex online optimizations (Moody et al. 2017), it is important they are developed in collaboration with the practitioners.
Structured decision making and applied conservation
As part of my dissertation experience, I have had the opportunity to learn about structured decision making – a formal, iterative approach to investigating and solving problems. I used this framework as part of my research in expert elicitation and selection of focal species for conservation (Moody and Grand 2012). As part of my future research, I would like to work with government or local non-profit organizations to determine if there are resource/management issues they would be interested in working on within a decision making framework. For example, a local protected area may wonder how they can balance recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, or snowmobiling with biodiversity conservation. Guiding them through the structured decision making process would ensure they were clear about their objectives, and I would provide them with decision support tools (models, maps, etc.) to illustrate alternatives and trade-offs.
Integrating occurrence and abundance data into conservation planning
Good conservation planning requires good data on species. Unfortunately, detailed data are often unavailable over large areas so that modeled presences or presence-only data (e.g. museum records) must be used. I have used both of these types of data to do large-scale, multi-species conservation plans but I would like to also work on smaller suites of species and integrate occurrence and abundance data into conservation plans. Collecting occurrence and abundance data is a great way to get students to participate in conservation planning. I will conduct systematic surveys with students for birds, small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. This data will then be used in occupancy models to produce better species distribution models for input into conservation planning.