Evaluation of landscape level habitat characteristics of golden eagle habitat in Northwestern Mexico

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Virginia Tech


Golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos canadensis Linnaeus 1758) are declining in some areas throughout their Nearctic range (Sauer et al. 2011). This reduction is linked to changes in their habitat caused by human activities. Golden eagles inhabit an extensive range of environments (Watson 1997, Kochert et al. 2002). In the American Continent, the golden eagle's range encompasses Alaska, Canada, the United States and the Northern and Central portions of Mexico. Northern golden eagle populations migrate during winter to southern grounds, crossing international boundaries of Canada, the US and Mexico and therefore, their conservation is of trilateral concern. Golden eagles are protected by domestic laws in the three North American countries where they occur (FWCA 1997, BGEPA 1940, MBTA 1918, Lacey Act 1900, DOF 2002) and although the IUCN list the species as Least Concern, the A. c. canadensis subspecies has been protected by CITES since 1975 (Birdlife International 2012).

While intensively studied in the United States, very little is known in Mexico about golden eagle ecology and their populations. As the national bird of Mexico, its conservation has been a priority for the Mexican government since its inclusion in the Endangered Species List in 1994 (SEDESOL 1994). Several threats jeopardize golden eagle populations throughout their range in North America: habitat alteration and fragmentation, electrocution, collisions with vehicles, collision with windmills and wires, poisoning from lead ingestion, drowning, shooting and trapping, and poaching for illegal wildlife trade. Mexican experts believe that a dramatic decline occurred over recent decades and that the remaining pairs have been restricted to remnant suitable habitat patches (SEMARNAP-INE 1999). Long-term survival of golden eagles largely depends on the effectiveness of current conservation efforts of habitat at a landscape level. Successful conservation and management requires accurate information on ecology of the species upon which decisions can be based. This study investigated habitat characteristics of the areas occupied by golden eagles and developed strategies for habitat management and protection to improve golden eagle viability in Chihuahua State.

I surveyed a portion of Chihuahuan Desert Ecoregion in Mexico to locate golden eagle territories during 2009 and 2010. I located 30 golden eagle nesting territories and found similar composition of cover type, vegetation structure and prey indices between the territory cores and their buffer zones. Distance to most anthropogenic disturbance sources was similar between golden eagle sites and random areas (n=60). Grassland was the most common cover type, occurring in 100% of the nesting territories, and comprising 58% of the territories' area, suggesting a disproportionate use of this cover type compared to its overall availability (25% of the state area).

I used landscape attributes such as topographic characteristics and human disturbances to model the probability of occurrence of golden eagles across the landscape. I used logistic regression to model the occurrence of golden eagles at two different landscape scales and selected the best model at a home range scale based on AIC values to develop a predictive map of golden eagle distribution in Chihuahua, Mexico. I found that at a home range scale, golden eagles' occurrence was positively related to open areas and terrain ruggedness and negatively to human settlements, while at a larger scale it was positively related to open areas and negatively related to forested areas. The results confirm that golden eagles are dependent on grasslands and rugged terrain. I developed predictive maps of golden eagle occurrence using a logistic regression and a Mahalanobis distance approach using the variables from the model chosen to compare the performance and output with logistic regression modeling.

I analyzed the Mexican National Plan for Golden Eagle Recovery (PACE - Ã guila Real) and proposed a conservation strategy oriented to protect golden eagle populations and their habitat in Chihuahua, Mexico. This strategy integrates ecologic knowledge developed in the first two chapters and incorporates social participation of all stakeholders. The strategy recognizes the potential limitations of conservation implementation programs in Mexico and explores the potential opportunities to protect golden eagles populations and their habitat.



Mexico, species distribution models, Aquila chrysaetos, Chihuahua, golden eagle, grasslands, habitat suitability modeling