Assessing Alabama’s Biodiversity

Jonathon Valente

Dr. Jonathon Valente

“We have to be fastidious about taking care of public lands in Alabama,” said Dr. Jonathon Valente, assistant research professor in the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment (CFWE) and assistant unit leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Alabama Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

Most land in Alabama is privately owned, with only 4% of its lands protected. As ecologists are staring down an ongoing global biodiversity crisis, the state continues taking action to ensure conservation efforts are as effective and efficient as possible.

Toward this goal, Valente received an award for a five-year project from the Alabama Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (ADCNR) to examine the effects of habitat management on wildlife communities using Alabama’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs).

The project builds on previous work funded by ADCNR for the first Inventory and Conservation Planning Project (ICP) conducted on ADCNR lands between 2008 and 2010. The original project aimed to examine the habitat characteristics preferred by different species and use that information to build a plan for maximizing wildlife habitat for all species on WMAs. “You might call this ICP 2.0,” said Valente. “We will go back to those same state lands to evaluate how landscapes have changed as a function
of management, assess how wildlife communities are responding and evaluate outcomes.”

One of the big questions this project hopes to answer is how habitat on WMAs has changed since the last study and how these changes compare to the goals outlined in ICP 1.0. In other words, Valente said, “Did our management actions match the intended outcomes?”

Valente’s team also plans to leverage remote sensing technology to assess the relative importance of these WMAs in supporting biodiversity compared to nearby private lands. “The world is changing around those WMAs — ownership changes, development comes in — so we are thinking about how the relative importance of WMAs has changed compared to the lands surrounding them.”

Five CFWE graduate students will be hired to work on the project, and they’ll be working closely with Valente and other faculty members with relevant expertise. One student will be hired to do an exhaustive vegetation survey, categorizing habitat types and looking at how the vegetation has changed since the earlier project.

A bird is shown looking at the camera

The other four graduate students will examine how the populations and communities have changed for birds, bats and mammals. Sampling will include human observers recording bird songs and sightings, humane traps and cameras to examine mammals, and specialized high-frequency audio recording devices to record bats.

While the scope of the project includes a broad assessment of avian and mammal species — game and non-game — some key objectives include monitoring habitat for species that ADCNR has deemed the greatest conservation need (GCN). Many of these species are so sparsely populated that they are difficult to detect and monitor.

“The Southeastern American kestrel (Falco sparverius palus) and the Brazilian free-tailed bat (Tadarida brasiliensis) are both GCN species in Alabama’s State Wildlife Action Plan,” Valente said. “Both species tend to occupy agricultural or disturbed spaces with low canopy cover and high ground cover, and results from ICP 1.0 revealed that indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea), which are relatively common in Alabama, have similar habitat preferences. Thus, researchers on ICP 1.0 determined that indigo buntings can serve as a surrogate species for Southeastern American kestrel and Brazilian free-tailed bat because if you’re providing habitat for buntings, you’re likely providing habitat for the other two species.”

Graduate students will work with CFWE faculty members specializing in each key area. Dr. Robert Gitzen, a small mammal and population modeling expert, will supervise the two students working on bats and small mammals. Dr. Lana Narine specializes in remote sensing and will co-advise the graduate students linking vegetation structure data with land cover maps of vegetation structure. Dr. Chris Lepczyk is an avian ecologist and will co-advise students working with bird communities. Finally, Dr. Jana Willoughby, another leader on the project, will collect preliminary genetic data from small mammal species to think about connectivity among the areas
and genetic isolation.

They’ll receive support from ADCNR through collaboration with Amy Silvano, the assistant chief of wildlife for ADCNR, who also worked on the first ICP project. “We appreciate her institutional knowledge and enthusiasm for implementing this project,” said Valente.

“Monitoring the effects of management activities often isn’t feasible because of budget and personnel restraints,” Valente said.

“I applaud ADCNR and their effort to monitor how their actions have played out so they can better evaluate the impact of their management actions or change course where needed,” said Emmett F. Thompson Dean Dr. Janaki Alavalapati. “An adaptive approach is critical to preserving biodiversity, and it’s something too often neglected.”