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U.S. Forest Service research guiding African lion conservation

"I am very honored, that the Forest Service is called upon for its landscape modeling expertise," said researcher Samuel Cushman.

By Brooks Hays

FORT COLLINS, Colo., Oct. 30 (UPI) -- Africa remains remains one of the few places on Earth where large predators and herding animals have space to roam. But that space is shrinking, and conservationists are searching for ways to ensure space for animals like lions in a more crowded and fragmented future.

In a newly published study, scientists with the U.S. Forest Service and Oxford University offer their expertise on the matter -- specifically, how to carve out space for healthy lion populations.

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Africa's human population is growing, and demographers expect it to continue growing through the end of the century. Meanwhile, most animal populations are shrinking. Conflict between human expansion and development and wild animals will only grow more problematic, especially for big predators like lions.

To make sure conservationists make the best of the wildlife that remains, park managers are turning to the habitat management algorithms designed by U.S. Forest Service. For the last 15 years, the Forest Service has been developing models to better understand how human development affects animals -- answering questions about population dispersal, movement, reproduction and how those factors are influenced by the size, shape and distribution of ideal habitat.

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Their latest work, published in the journal Landscape Ecology, reveals the importance of corridors in lion conservation.

The researchers' models incorporated data about African lion populations -- their numbers, movements, hunting habits, genetic diversity -- and ran the numbers through various scenarios that included shrinking parks, encroaching humans and land conversion. The results showed that in addition to protecting current parks and habitat preserves, strategic corridor fencing will be key.

Wildlife managers need to find ways to funnel lions between expanded portions of protected habitat -- from park to park, preserve to preserve.

"We were surprised to see that lion populations were so vulnerable to habitat loss and fragmentation, given they are among the most mobile animals in all of Africa," lead study author Samuel Cushman, research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, said in a press release. "This suggests that habitat loss and fragmentation will possibly have more severe effects on other species, which are less mobile."

"I am very honored, that the Forest Service is called upon for its landscape modeling expertise and that the research we developed, focusing on the ecology and management of forest ecosystems in the western United States, has had such a wide reach and could be applied so globally," Cushman concluded.

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