Aim: Species require sufficiently large and connected areas of suitable habitat to support populations that can persist through change. With extensive alteration of unprotected natural habitat, there is increasing risk that protected areas (PAs) will be too small and isolated to support viable populations in the long term. Consequently, this study addresses the urgent need to assess the capacity of PA estates to facilitate species persistence.
Methods: We undertake the first assessment of the capacity of the Australian National Reserve System (NRS) to protect 90 mammal species in the long term, given the size and distribution of individual PAs across the landscape relative to species’ habitat and minimum viable area (MVA) requirements and dispersal capabilities.
Results: While all mammal ranges are represented within the NRS, the conservation capacity declined notably when we refined measures of representation within PAs to include species’ habitat and area requirements. The NRS could not support any viable populations for between three and seven species, depending on the MVA threshold used, and could support less than 10 viable populations for up to a third of the species. Planning and managing PAs for persistence emerged as most important for species with large MVA requirements and limited dispersal capabilities.
Main conclusions: The key species characteristics we identify can help managers recognize species at risk within the current PA estate and guide the types of strategies that would best reduce this risk. We reveal that current representation-based assessments of PA progress are likely to overestimate the long-term success of PA estates, obscuring vulnerabilities for many species. It is important that conservation planners and managers are realistic and explicit regarding the role played by different sizes and distributions of PAs, and careful in assuming that the representation of a species within a PA equates to its long-term conservation.
- conservation planning
- conservation targets
- habitat suitability
- minimum viable population
- species persistence
- terrestrial mammals