Distribution and connectivity of suitable habitat for species of conservation concern is critical for effective conservation planning. Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), an umbrella species for biodiversity conservation, is increasingly threatened because of habitat loss and fragmentation.
We assessed the impact of drastic changes in forest management in the Carpathian Mountains, a major stronghold of capercaillie in Europe, on habitat distribution and connectivity.
We used field data surveys with a forest disturbance dataset for 1985–2010 to map habitat suitability, and we used graph theory to analyse habitat connectivity.
Climate, topography, forest proportion and fragmentation, and the distance to roads and settlements best identified capercaillie presence. Suitable habitat area was 7510 km2 in 1985; by 2010, clear-cutting had reduced that area by 1110 km2. More suitable habitat was lost inside protected areas (571 km2) than outside (413 km2). Habitat loss of 15 % reduced functional connectivity by 33 % since 1985.
Forest management, particularly large-scale clear-cutting and salvage logging, have substantially diminished and fragmented suitable capercaillie habitat, regardless of the status of forest protection. Consequently, larger areas with suitable habitat are now isolated and many patches are too small to sustain viable populations. Given that protection of capercaillie habitat would benefit many other species, including old-growth specialists and large carnivores, conservation actions to halt the loss of capercaillie habitat is urgently needed. We recommend adopting policies to protect natural forests, limiting large-scale clear-cutting and salvage logging, implementing ecological forestry, and restricting road building to reduce forest fragmentation.