Date Published: January 15, 2019
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Joseph A. E. Stewart, H. Scott Butterfield, Jonathan Q. Richmond, David J. Germano, Michael F. Westphal, Erin N. Tennant, Barry Sinervo, James K. Sheppard.
A recent global trend toward retirement of farmland presents opportunities to reclaim habitat for threatened and endangered species. We examine habitat restoration opportunities in one of the world’s most converted landscapes, California’s San Joaquin Desert (SJD). Despite the presence of 35 threatened and endangered species, agricultural expansion continues to drive habitat loss in the SJD, even as marginal farmland is retired. Over the next decades a combination of factors, including salinization, climate change, and historical groundwater overdraft, are projected to lead to the retirement of more than 2,000 km2 of farmland in the SJD. To promote strategic habitat protection and restoration, we conducted a quantitative assessment of habitat loss and fragmentation, habitat suitability, climatic niche stability, climate change impacts, habitat protection, and reintroduction opportunities for an umbrella species of the SJD, the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard (Gambelia sila). We use our suitability models, in conjunction with modern and historical land use maps, to estimate the historical and modern rate of habitat loss to development. The estimated amount of habitat lost since the species became protected under endangered species law in 1967 is greater than the total amount of habitat currently protected through public ownership and conservation easement. We document climatic niche contraction and associated range contraction away from the more mesic margins of the species’ historical distribution, driven by the anthropogenic introduction of exotic grasses and forbs. The impact of exotic species on G. sila range dynamics appears to be still unfolding. Finally, we use NASA fallowed area maps to identify 610 km2 of fallowed or retired agricultural land with high potential to again serve as habitat. We discuss conservation strategies in light of the potential for habitat restoration and multiple drivers of ongoing and historical habitat loss.
Habitat loss resulting from agricultural expansion is one of the greatest historical drivers of extinction [1,2]. A recent global trend toward retirement of marginal farmland, especially in temperate latitudes, presents an important opportunity to reclaim some of this lost habitat in a cost-effective manner before the land is claimed for other uses [3–6]. More information on patterns of habitat loss, degradation, and use will allow targeted habitat restoration in areas where it will make the biggest impact for conserving sensitive and endangered species.