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Biodiversity, Urban Areas, and Agriculture: Locating Priority Ecoregions for Conservation

Taylor Ricketts, World Wildlife Fund
Marc Imhoff, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

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Abstract

Urbanization and agriculture are two of the most important threats to biodiversity worldwide. The intensities of these land-use phenomena, however, as well as levels of biodiversity itself, differ widely among regions. Thus, there is a need to develop a quick but rigorous method of identifying where high levels of human threats and biodiversity coincide. These areas are clear priorities for biodiversity conservation. In this study, we combine distribution data for eight major plant and animal taxa (comprising over 20,000 species) with remotely sensed measures of urban and agricultural land use to assess conservation priorities among 76 terrestrial ecoregions in North America. We combine the species data into overall indices of richness and endemism. We then plot each of these indices against the percent cover of urban and agricultural land in each ecoregion, resulting in four separate comparisons. For each comparison, ecoregions that fall above the 66th quantile on both axes are identified as priorities for conservation. These analyses yield four “priority sets” of 6–16 ecoregions (8–21% of the total number) where high levels of biodiversity and human land use coincide. These ecoregions tend to be concentrated in the southeastern United States, California, and, to a lesser extent, the Atlantic coast, southern Texas, and the U.S. Midwest. Importantly, several ecoregions are members of more than one priority set and two ecoregions are members of all four sets. Across all 76 ecoregions, urban cover is positively correlated with both species richness and endemism. Conservation efforts in densely populated areas therefore may be equally important (if not more so) as preserving remote parks in relatively pristine regions.

Key words

North America, agriculture, biodiversity, conservation, conservation priorities, ecoregions, endemism, human land use, species richness, threats to biodiversity, urbanization
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087