1. Habitat conservation, particularly for large, multiple use areas, must account for the needs of multiple species. However, an unresolved issue is how to manage habitat when the needs of resident species conflict and when the habitat can only be modelled at a coarse scale. Here, we illustrate an approach to optimizing habitat management using an example of a community of forest-breeding birds.
2. We used potential habitat maps for 20 bird species in northern Wisconsin and identified a spatial arrangement that maximizes conservation value for multiple species, maximizes connectivity and minimizes the area needed for conservation. To do this, we ranked each cell of the study area using a nested percentage value, with for example the highest-ranking 1% holding lands of highest conservation value.
3. As we progressively increased the portion of landscape considered, starting with the highest-ranking habitat first, the number of species for which the minimum habitat requirements were met reached plateaux at 3% and 20% of the landscape. To provide enough area to meet the minimum habitat requirements for all but two species, an estimated 20% of the habitat with the highest conservation value, c. 1 million hectares, would need to be maintained. Of that 20% highest-ranking area, 42% was on public lands, compared with 28% for the study area.
4. Tribal lands held a disproportionally large amount of area estimated to be of high conservation value: within the highest-ranking 1% of land, 14% consisted of tribal lands, while these lands held only 5% of the entire study area’s forests.
5.Synthesis and applications. Hierarchical prioritization provided an efficient mapping approach and the regional perspective necessary to identify management opportunities for a wide range of species. However, it could not explicitly address conflicts among species with overlapping potential habitat but incompatible fine-scale habitat needs. Ignoring this issue may lead to a failure to meet conservation objectives. This issue of habitat mischaracterization needs to be recognized in conservation planning objectives, preferably integrated in an optimization strategy, and can only be partly addressed with a post hoc, stepwise heuristic approach.