, Volume 13, Issue 5, pp 1039-1058

Modelling the effects of irrigation schemes on the distribution of steppe birds in Mediterranean farmland

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Abstract

Research conducted in several Mediterranean areas indicates that most populations of steppe birds are currently experiencing population declines associated with intensification of traditional agricultural practices. By using habitat suitability modeling (HSM), our aim was to use available environmental data sets, including land use and relief, to model the current distribution of nine steppe bird species in the agriculture dominated areas of the Catalan Ebro basin (northeast Iberia). We then employ HSM to quantitatively assess the future impact of land use changes on the potential distribution range of these species under two scenarios following irrigation of present extensive cereal steppes in the area. HSM analyses showed a close association between steppe bird distribution and the extent of extensive cereal agriculture in flat areas. Although the sensitivity to planned irrigation schemes was species specific, we estimated significant decreases in distribution after irrigation for seven of the nine species examined, i.e. the Little bustard, the Montagu's harrier, the Roller and the Calandra lark, the species predicted to be more severely affected by predicted decreases in area exceeding 50%. Overall, core steppe habitats where most valuable steppe species may co-occur are expected to be mostly impacted and decrease by 74 to 81% after irrigation of only 28 to 36% of the cereal cropland in the region. Future maintenance and survival of viable populations of steppe birds will rely on our ability to enlarge the network of protected areas and to implement agri-environmental measures targeting current species core habitats in low-intensity farmland.