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Probabilistic accounting of uncertainty in forecasts of species distributions under climate change


Correspondence. Seth J. Wenger, Trout Unlimited, 322 East Front Street, Suite 401, Boise, ID 83702, USA, tel. +208 373 4386, fax +208 373 4391, e-mail:


Forecasts of species distributions under future climates are inherently uncertain, but there have been few attempts to describe this uncertainty comprehensively in a probabilistic manner. We developed a Monte Carlo approach that accounts for uncertainty within generalized linear regression models (parameter uncertainty and residual error), uncertainty among competing models (model uncertainty), and uncertainty in future climate conditions (climate uncertainty) to produce site-specific frequency distributions of occurrence probabilities across a species' range. We illustrated the method by forecasting suitable habitat for bull trout (Salvelinus confluentus) in the Interior Columbia River Basin, USA, under recent and projected 2040s and 2080s climate conditions. The 95% interval of total suitable habitat under recent conditions was estimated at 30.1–42.5 thousand km; this was predicted to decline to 0.5–7.9 thousand km by the 2080s. Projections for the 2080s showed that the great majority of stream segments would be unsuitable with high certainty, regardless of the climate data set or bull trout model employed. The largest contributor to uncertainty in total suitable habitat was climate uncertainty, followed by parameter uncertainty and model uncertainty. Our approach makes it possible to calculate a full distribution of possible outcomes for a species, and permits ready graphical display of uncertainty for individual locations and of total habitat.