Incorporating habitat suitability, landscape distance, and resistant kernels to estimate conservation units for an imperiled terrestrial snake
Context Wildlife distributions are often subdivided into discrete conservation units to aid in implementing management and conservation objectives. Habitat suitability models, resistance surfaces, and resistant kernels provide tools for delineating spatially explicit conservation units but guidelines for parameterizing resistant kernels are generally lacking. Objectives We used the federally threatened eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi) as a case study for calibrating resistant kernels using observed movement data and resistance surfaces to help delineate habitat-based conservation units. Methods We simulated eastern indigo snake movements under different resistance surface and resistant kernel parameterizations and selected the scenario that produced simulated movement distances that best approximated the maximum observed annual movement distance. We used our calibrated resistant kernel to model range-wide connectivity and compared delineated conservation units to Euclidean distance-based population units from the recent eastern indigo snake species status assessment (SSA). Results We identified a total of 255 eastern indigo snake conservation units, with numerous large (2500-5000 ha of suitable habitat) conservation units across the eastern indigo snake distribution. There was substantial variation in the degree of overlap with the SSA population units likely reflecting the spatial heterogeneity in habitat suitability and landscape resistance. Conclusion Our calibration approach is widely applicable to other systems for parameterizing biologically meaningful resistant kernels. Our conservation units can be used to prioritize future eastern indigo snake conservation efforts, identify areas where more survey work is needed, or identify small, isolated populations with high extinction risks.