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Environmental change, shifting distributions, and habitat conservation plans: A case study of the California gnatcatcher.

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Many species have already experienced distributional shifts due to changing environmental conditions, and analyzing past shifts can help us to understand the influence of environmental stressors on a species as well as to analyze the effectiveness of conservation strategies. We aimed to (1) quantify regional habitat associations of the California gnatcatcher (Polioptila californica); (2) describe changes in environmental variables and gnatcatcher distributions through time; (3) identify environmental drivers associated with habitat suitability changes; and (4) relate habitat suitability changes through time to habitat conservation plans. Southern California's Western Riverside County (WRC), an approximately 4,675 km2 conservation planning area. We assessed environmental correlates of distributional shifts of the federally threatened California gnatcatcher (hereafter, gnatcatcher) using partitioned Mahalanobis D2 niche modeling for three time periods: 1980-1997, 1998-2003, and 2004-2012, corresponding to distinct periods in habitat conservation planning. Highly suitable gnatcatcher habitat was consistently warmer and drier and occurred at a lower elevation than less suitable habitat and consistently had more CSS, less agriculture, and less chaparral. However, its relationship to development changed among periods, mainly due to the rapid change in this variable. Likewise, other aspects of highly suitable habitat changed among time periods, which became cooler and higher in elevation. The gnatcatcher lost 11.7% and 40.6% of highly suitable habitat within WRC between 1980-1997 to 1998-2003, and 1998-2003 to 2004-2012, respectively. Unprotected landscapes lost relatively more suitable habitat (-64.3%) than protected landscapes (30.5%). Over the past four decades, suitable habitat loss within WRC, especially between the second and third time periods, was associated with temperature-related factors coupled with landscape development across coastal sage scrub habitat; however, development appears to be driving change more rapidly than climate change. Our study demonstrates the importance of providing protected lands for potential suitable habitat in future scenarios.

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