Conservation planning depends on reliable information regarding the geographic distribution of species. However, our knowledge of species' distributions is often incomplete, especially when species are cryptic, difficult to survey, or rare. The use of species distribution models has increased in recent years and proven a valuable tool to evaluate habitat suitability for species. However, practitioners have yet to fully adopt the potential of species distribution models to inform conservation efforts for information-limited species. Here, we describe a species distribution modeling approach for at-risk species that could better inform U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s species status assessments and help facilitate conservation decisions. We applied four modeling techniques (generalized additive, maximum entropy, generalized boosted, and weighted ensemble) to occurrence data for four at-risk species proposed for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (Papaipema eryngii, Macbridea caroliniana, Scutellaria ocmulgee and Balduina atropurpurea) in the Southeastern U.S. The use of ensemble models reduced uncertainty caused by differences among modeling techniques, with a consequent improvement of predictive accuracy of fitted models. Incorporating an ensemble modeling approach into species status assessments and similar frameworks is likely to benefit survey efforts, inform recovery activities, and provide more robust status assessments for at-risk species. We emphasize that co-producing species distribution models in close collaboration with species experts has the potential to provide better calibration data and model refinements, which could ultimately improve reliance and use of model outputs.

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