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Ecological networks design: developing a ranking scheme of habitat patches to assess suitability for conservation.

Ral Salas-Gonzlez1 Beatriz Fidalgo2 Sara Soares Joaquim Gonalves1 Jess Laborda Roca1
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Instituto Politcnico de Coimbra; Centro de Estudos de Recursos Naturais, Ambiente e Sociedade, Escola Superior Agrria, 3040-316, Bencanta, Coimbra, Portugal. 2 Universidade Tcnica de Lisboa, Instituto Superior de Agronomia, Centro de Estudos Florestais, Tapada da Ajuda 1349017, Lisboa, Portugal. rsalas@esac.pt

Ecological networks design: Developing a ranking scheme of habitat patches to assess suitability for conservation. Ecological networks have become widely recognized as an effective response to conserve wildlife in environments that have become fragmented by human activities such as it is the case of agricultural landscapes. An ecological network comprises a suite of high quality sites which collectively contains the habitat that are needed to support species (diversity) and which have ecological connections between them that enable species, or at least their genes, to move. Beyond this conservation objective, ecological networks are also considered in land use planning as an effective method to pursuit several other objectives. In fact, coherent and resilient ecological networks can provide a varied range of ecosystem services, delivering a wider range of benefits for people and quality of life as well. The aim of this work is to develop a methodology for ranking forest sites to integrate in an ecological network based on its suitability for conservation, the permeability of the landscape to species movement and in its potential for restoration. In order to support management decisions in a site-specific manner, measurement of the degree of site suitability is therefore crucial to select what sites should be included in the ecological network. Once management and planning decisions at the municipal level have to be submitted to public discussion, criteria used in the evaluation should be both easily measured and easily understood. The methodology was developed using as a case study a municipality located in Central Portugal, with an area of 395 km2, known as Cantanhede. Today, land cover in the study area is divided among forests, mainly maritime pine (Pinus pinaster Ait.) and eucalypts plantations (Eucalyptus globulus Labill) (58%) followed by agricultural areas (30%), urban areas (9%) and non-cultivated areas (shrubs) covering less than 3%. Native forest species are the land cover type with higher conservation value but is very fragmented. We started by collecting and gathering the data set need for the analysis. This included: photo interpretation using a minimum identifiable area of 3000 m2 in the native deciduous patch layer; development of land cover/use layer for the hole landscape and a layer with Native deciduous patches (high valuable patches); field work for biodiversity and forest inventory; Assemble different geographical datasets and GIS modeling of spatial attributes need to develop criteria for landscape permeability and restoration potential assessment. All the geographical data set was developed using ARCGISV9 software. Based on the data collected in the field work, alpha biodiversity indexes and other forest structural attributes related with its value for biodiversity conservation were examined in order to develop a composite biodiversity index that expresses the biodiversity level of the different forest cover types. This index was then linked to the land cover map. The layer of potential patches for conservation was used to calculate structural indicators of the landscape at patch level that have an important effect on its biodiversity value such as patch area, proportion of the landscape, patch shape or distance to the neighboring patch. Potential for restoration was assessed considering the ecological suitability maps of the main forest species and the potential of land use types for reversion to a more favorable condition from the conservation point of view. The overall landscape permeability was assessed using criteria such

as distance to waterlines or to roads or other social areas. Finally all the partial index were aggregated in an overall suitability index for conservation using weighted linear combination. Biodiversity and forest inventory confirmed native broadleaved types as the landscape type with more biodiversity value. Outcomes also confirmed the high level of fragmentation of forest native species. In fact this forest type is divided in more than 293 patches which correspond to a total are of 388 ha, that is less than 4% of the whole landscape. This is the set of patch that could be included in the network design. Results also showed that forest stands near the waterlines and agricultural fields have higher biodiversity values. Results showed that the number of species alone may not truly reflect the biodiversity value of patch in the network. In order to better understand final results, the final ranking was classified in quartiles. Patches belonging to the first and second quartiles were selected to be included as core or stepping stone areas in the final ecological network. They correspond to adult deciduous forest stands located near the main waterlines or in chalks soils with low degree of management. On the opposite side, the lower ranked patches are located near urban areas, surrounded by industrial land uses or eucalyptus plantations and or very distant from its nearest neighboring patch. From the methodological point of view we can conclude that this approach was relatively easy to implement, and it is a potential valuable tool for decision-making in situations were planning has to be done with limited data sets concerning the biodiversity value. It seems particularly target to select patches in an agricultural landscapes were conservation measures are not only to conserve existing habitats but also to target sites with high potential for restoration in a high competing environment with high demand for production land uses.