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Delimiting road-effect zones for threatened species: implications for mitigation fencing

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Context Roads are a pernicious form of habitat loss for many wildlife populations because their effects often extend far beyond the roads themselves, giving rise to reduced wildlife abundance in road-effect zones. Quantifying the extent of road-effect zones more accurately portrays their impact on populations and the true extent to which habitat is lost for many species. Aim The purpose of the present study was to evaluate ways of determining the extent of road-effect zones for a model study species to better quantify the effect of roads on habitat loss. Methods We conducted road-side surveys for signs of Mojave desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) 0, 200, 400, 800 and 1600m from county roads and interstates, two of the most common road types in critical habitat of this threatened species. Using data from these road-side surveys, we estimated the extent of road-effect zones using piecewise regression and modified von Bertalanffy models. Key results We found reduced abundances of tortoise sign along both county roads and interstates. Reductions extended farther from the large, high-traffic interstate than from the smaller, lower-traffic county roads (306m versus 230m). The increase in the abundance of tortoise signs with distance from roads approximated a negative exponential curve. Conclusions Interstate and county roads both contribute to habitat loss in road-side areas by making these habitats unsuitable to desert tortoises, presumably by removing animals via mortality from collisions with vehicles. Larger roads with greater traffic have more extensive effects. Implications Roadside mitigation fencing has been proposed as one way to reduce mortality of desert tortoises and to reclaim habitat by allowing tortoises to recolonise currently depauperate road-effect zones. Immediate mortality is more likely to be prevented by fencing county roads where tortoises occur closer to roads and are more likely to be struck by vehicles and killed. However, fencing interstate should yield more reclaimed habitat than that obtained from fencing county roads. Managers must consider balancing these goals along with other concerns when deciding where to place roadside fencing.

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