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Effects of ecohydrological variables on current and future ranges, local suitability patterns, and model accuracy in big sagebrush


D. R. Schlaepfer, Univ. of Wyoming, Dept of Botany, 1000 E. Univ. Avenue, Laramie, WY 82071, USA. E-mail:


Forecasting of species and ecosystem responses to novel conditions, including climate change, is one of the major challenges facing ecologists at the start of the 21st century. Climate change studies based on species distribution models (SDMs) have been criticized because they extend correlational relationships beyond the observed data. Here, we compared conventional climate-based SDMs against ecohydrological SDMs that include information from process-based simulations of water balance. We examined the current and future distribution of Artemisia tridentata (big sagebrush) representing sagebrush ecosystems, which are widespread in semiarid western North America. For each approach, we calculated ensemble models from nine SDM methods and tested accuracy of each SDM with a null distribution. Climatic conditions included current conditions for 1970–1999 and two IPCC projections B1 and A2 for 2070–2099. Ecohydrological conditions were assessed by simulating soil water balance with SOILWAT, a daily time-step, multiple layer, mechanistic, soil water model. Under current conditions, both climatic and ecohydrological SDM approaches produced comparable sagebrush distributions. Overall, sagebrush distribution is forecasted to decrease, with larger decreases under the A2 than under the B1 scenario and strong decreases in the southern part of the range. Increases were forecasted in the northern parts and at higher elevations. Both SDM approaches produced accurate predictions. However, the ecohydrological SDM approach was slightly less accurate than climatic SDMs (−1% in AUC, −4% in Kappa and TSS) and predicted a higher number of habitat patches than observed in the input data. Future predictions of ecohydrological SDMs included an increased number of habitat patches whereas climatic SDMs predicted a decrease. This difference is important for understanding landscape-scale patterns of sagebrush ecosystems and management of sagebrush obligate species for future conditions. Several mechanisms can explain the diverging forecasts; however, we need better insights into the consequences of different datasets for SDMs and how these affect our understanding of future trajectories.