Assessing the Effects of Sea-Level Rise on Piping Plover (Charadrius Melodus) Nesting Habitat, and the Ecology of a Key Mammalian Shorebird Predator, on Assateague Island

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Virginia Tech

The piping plover (Charadrius melodus) is a federally-listed shorebird that nests on barrier islands along the U.S. Atlantic Coast and is highly vulnerable to habitat change and predation. We have addressed these two threats by 1) developing and implementing a linked model system that predicts future change to piping plover habitat resulting from sea-level rise and beach management efforts by joining dynamic models of sea-level rise, shoreline change, island geomorphology and piping plover nest habitat suitability, and 2) quantifying occupancy and movement of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), a key shorebird predator at Assateague Island, Maryland and Virginia. We constructed and tested a model that links changes in geomorphological characteristics to piping plover nesting habitat suitability. We then linked this model to larger scale shoreline change resulting from sea level rise and storms. Using this linked model to forecast future sea-level rise and beach management efforts, we found that modest sea-level rise rates (3 mm and 4.1 mm/yr; similar to current rates) may increase suitable piping plover nesting habitat area in 50-100 years and some beach management strategies (beach nourishment and artificial dune modifications) also influence habitat availability. Our development and implementation of this tool to predict change in piping plover habitat suitability provides a vital starting point for predicting how plover nesting habitat will change in a context of planned human modifications intended to address climate change-related threats. Our findings regarding red fox occupancy and movement complement the use of this model for planning future management actions by providing vital information on the effects of certain predator management activities and habitat use of a key mammalian predator, the red fox, for shorebirds along the U.S. Atlantic Coast. Overall, we found that 1) red fox occupancy was strongly tied to eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) trap success, increasing sharply with increased eastern cottontail trap success, 2) red fox occupancy did not change in response to an intensive eradication program, and 3) red foxes in our study area generally moved little between camera stations spaced 300 m from each other, but may move large distances (> 6km) at times, likely to occupy new territory available after lethal control efforts. Our findings have important ramifications for the sustainability of long-term predator removal programs and our understanding of future habitat change on the red fox. For example how vegetation changes affect eastern cottontails, how resulting fluctuations in eastern cottontails affect red fox occupancy, and how consequential changes in red fox occupancy affect plover breeding productivity. Our predictive model combined with these predator findings will allow wildlife managers to better plan and implement effective management actions for piping plovers in response to the multiple stressors of SLR-induced habitat change and predation.

sea-level rise, shorebirds, piping plover (Charadrius modelodus), Bayesian Networks, predators, red fox (Vulpes vulpes), conservation, management, coastal, barrier island