Effects of riparian areas, stream order, and land use disturbance on watershed-scale habitat potential: An ecohydrologic approach to policy

Spatio-temporal linkages between hydrologic and ecologic dimensions of watersheds play a critical role in conservation policies. Habitat potential is influenced by variation along longitudinal and lateral gradients and land use disturbance. An assessment of these influences provides critical information for protecting watershed ecosystems and in making spatially explicit, conservation decisions. We use an ecohydrologic approach that focuses on interface between hydrological and ecological processes. This study focuses on changes in watershed habitat potentials along lateral (riparian), and longitudinal (stream order) dimensions and disturbance (land use). The habitat potentials were evaluated for amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds in the Westfield River Watershed of Massachusetts using geographic information systems and multivariate analysis. We use a polynomial model to study nonlinear effects using robust regression. Various spatial policies were modeled and evaluated for influence on species diversity. All habitat potentials showed a strong influence along spatial dimensions and disturbance. The habitat potential for all vertebrate groups studied decreased as the distance from the riparian zone increased. Headwaters and lower order subwatersheds had higher levels of species diversity compared to higher order subwatersheds. It was observed that locations with the least disturbance also had higher habitat potential. The study identifies three policy criteria that could be used to identify critical areas within a watershed to conserve habitat suitable for various species through management and restoration activities. A spatially variable policy that is based on stream order, riparian distance, and land use can be used to maximize watershed ecological benefits. Wider riparian zones with variable widths, protection of headwaters and lower order subwatersheds, and minimizing disturbance in riparian and headwater areas can be used in watershed policy. These management objectives could be achieved using targeted economic incentives, best management practices, zoning laws, and educational programs using a watershed perspective.
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