Value of protected areas to avian persistence across 20 years of climate and land-use change

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Establishing protected areas, where human activities and land cover changes are restricted, is among the most widely used strategies for biodiversity conservation. This practice is based on the assumption that protected areas buffer species from processes that drive extinction. However, protected areas can maintain biodiversity in the face of climate change and subsequent shifts in distributions have been questioned. We evaluated the degree to which protected areas influenced colonization and extinction patterns of 97 avian species over 20 years in the northeastern United States. We fitted single-visit dynamic occupancy models to data from Breeding Bird Atlases to quantify the magnitude of the effect of drivers of local colonization and extinction (e.g., climate, land cover, and amount of protected area) in heterogeneous landscapes that varied in the amount of area under protection. Colonization and extinction probabilities improved as the amount of protected area increased, but these effects were conditional on landscape context and species characteristics. In this forest-dominated region, benefits of additional land protection were greatest when both forest cover in a grid square and amount of protected area in neighboring grid squares were low. Effects did not vary with species’ migratory habit or conservation status. Increasing the amounts of land protection benefitted the range margins species but not the core range species. The greatest improvements in colonization and extinction rates accrued for forest birds relative to open-habitat or generalist species. Overall, protected areas stemmed extinction more than they promoted colonization. Our results indicate that land protection remains a viable conservation strategy despite changing habitat and climate, as protected areas both reduce the risk of local extinction and facilitate movement into new areas. Our findings suggest conservation in the face of climate change favors creation of new protected areas over enlarging existing ones as the optimal strategy to reduce extinction and provide stepping stones for the greatest number of species.

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Conservation Biology