Mapping seasonal European bison habitat in the Caucasus Mountains to identify potential reintroduction sites

In an increasingly human-dominated world, conservation requires the mitigation of conflicts between large mammals and people. Conflicts are particularly problematic when resources are limited, such as at wintering sites. Such conflicts have fragmented many large mammal populations, making reintroductions in suitable sites necessary. Broad-scale habitat suitability mapping can help to identify sites for species' reintroductions. The European bison is a good example of a large mammal that is restricted to only a fraction of its former range. The goal of our study was to identify and assess potential habitat for European bison in the Caucasus Mountains, which is a part of its former range and has the potential to harbor larger populations. Specifically, we used seasonal presence data from four reintroduced European bison populations and two sets of predictor variables to: (i) map habitat suitability for summer and winter, (ii) characterize habitat based on management-relevant categories that capture the potential for conflicts with people, and (iii) identify candidate sites for reintroductions. We found substantial areas of suitable habitat. However, areas of potential conflicts with people were widespread and often near highly suitable areas. We identified 69 potential reintroduction sites (10 230 km2 , 1.8% of the ecoregion) that have suitable summer and winter habitat with relatively low risk of human-wildlife conflict. These results can guide conservation efforts in establishing a viable European bison metapopulation in the Caucasus ecoregion. More broadly, our results highlight the need to map large mammal habitat suitability for different seasons in order to derive meaningful conservation recommendations.
Citation: 
Bleyhl, B., T. Sipko, S. Trepet, E. Bragina, P.J. Leitao, V.C. Radeloff, and T.Kuemmerle. 2015. Mapping seasonal European bison habitat in the Caucasus Mountains to identify potential reintroduction sites. Conservation Biology, 191: 83-92.