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Equipped with new data, partners guide evolving approach to conservation based on species' use of landscape

Partners in the Connecticut River Watershed Pilot are advancing the frontiers of conservation by designing a plan to achieve shared conservation goals across the watershed and region.

In late September, more than two dozen partners representing private organizations, states, and federal agencies met in Hadley, Mass., to continue work on a conservation design that addresses shared goals for the Connecticut River watershed and the northeast region.

Armed with maps and models that analyze the needs of regional species and ecosystems, the partners are working together to create a conservation blueprint for the watershed. The scientific data, provided in large part by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also projects impacts of climate change and development out to the year 2080.

Featuring the first unveiling of what a species-based landscape design might look like, the meeting of the Connecticut River Watershed Landscape Conservation Design Pilot Core Team represented an exciting landmark moment for the diverse partnership.

“It’s reassuring to talk to the partners involved in this project who are just as excited as we are,” said Nancy McGarigal, lead Natural Resource Planner for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region. “It’s not just a service that we are providing, but a real partnership.”

Incorporating conservation targets for 14 species chosen as the best representatives of important species and habitat types in the area, the partners are working through the challenge of setting goals for both terrestrial and aquatic organisms through concurrent design strategies.

To account for the needs of all representative species and their associated habitats, the Core Team established two sub teams to wrestle with the unique considerations for terrestrial and aquatic organisms.

Representing the Terrestrial Sub Team at the meeting, Randy Dettmers of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Division of Migratory Birds provided an update to the full Pilot team on recent consensus-based decisions about delineating ecosystem-based “core areas” - those which offer the greatest potential to satisfy long-term ecosystem objectives as part of an interconnected network. Dettmers said the team decided that for terrestrial systems, 25 percent of the total landscape-design area should comprise core areas, ideally in the fewest number of large land areas, rather than in a greater number of small areas.

Andrew MacLachlan of the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) reported that the Aquatics team is aiming for 25 percent of the “aquascape” to comprise core areas as well. Another priority is to make sure the parcels that are selected for the core are distributed throughout the watershed to bank against uncertainties, such as severe storms that could impact habitat in vulnerable areas. 

So how do objectives for core areas translate into a conservation plan? That’s where the Designing Sustainable Landscapes project comes into play. Led by Professor Kevin McGarigal at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the North Atlantic LCC-funded project is developing sophisticated models that integrate species and ecosystem objectives, landscape conditions, and climate-change projections to help partners visualize and prioritize conservation decisions.

During the meeting, McGarigal provided a behind-the-scenes look at the modeling process, describing various iterations of a species-based approach for pinpointing the best possible conservation targets in the smallest possible area, and inviting questions and discussion from the group to inform the final product.  

Moving forward, the Designing Sustainable Landscapes team will refine the approach to reflect Core Team input and decisions related to several key questions, such as how to treat aquatic species, how to account for the spatial needs of species with large ranges, and how to set realistic conservation targets, given the percentage of the landscape that will be required to reach them.

During the next three months, the final design will come together as partners analyze and make decisions about those questions, and determine how to incorporate future impacts from urban development and climate change, combine core areas for ecosystems and species, and look at potential restoration priorities, such as dam and culvert removal.

The completion of the Landscape Conservation Design for the Connecticut River Watershed will set the stage for continued collaboration on the ground. “This is not just an academic exercise,” explained Nancy McGarigal. “We want to think about making these decisions and products really applicable to practitioners at local and regional scales.”

With that in mind, McGarigal said the partners will reserve time at the final meeting in December to think about product development, outreach, and broader applications, in terms of how others who are working within the watershed but have not been part of process can use these tools at relevant scales, and how this process can be exported to other areas.

“Our Core Team members will certainly have a role in that effort,” McGarigal said, “And their help will be incredibly valuable.” 

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