Using a resource selection approach to predict the suitability of alpine habitats for a common herbivore

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Abstract

Climate change models predict that Australia's alpine areas will experience major declines in snow cover, which, in turn, may provide suitable habitat for species presently restricted to lower altitudes. As a result, there are concerns among land managers that many species will invade alpine areas and have a detrimental impact on fragile alpine ecosystems. However, species survival in such areas, irrespective of snow cover, is greatly dependent on the availability of suitable resources. This study investigated the selection of resources by common wombats Vombatus ursinus, which are currently restricted to, but widespread throughout, the subalpine zone of the Snowy Mountains. Our objectives were to identify habitat choices, and build a model of habitat suitability over the broader landscape, to investigate the likelihood of this common herbivore inhabiting the alpine zone. Global positioning system data were obtained from collared wombats, which were tracked for up to a year, to examine resource selection. Resource selection within the home range of individual wombats revealed that topographic position, vegetation cover, drainage, past fire disturbance, and roads were important predictors of locations. A global model showed that wombats selected locations with mid-elevations, moderate slopes, closer to water courses and roads, and with a lower proportion of grassland, which are discussed in relation to foraging and burrowing requirements. Mapping of the global model illustrated that alpine areas had a low relative probability of use by this species. Consequently, wombats are unlikely to inhabit alpine areas under given climate change scenarios of less snow cover, because the area (presently) does not contain suitable resources necessary for a wombat to maintain a home range. Researchers and managers need to be mindful of how the spatial distribution of resources, in addition to species climatic tolerances, will influence potential range shifts.

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