U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in Conservation Biology, (2010) 24(6), 1538–1548; DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01528.x


Biologists who develop and apply habitat models are often familiar with the statistical challenges posed by their data’s spatial structure but are unsure of whether the use of complex spatial models will increase the utility of model results in planning. We compared the relative performance of nonspatial and hierarchical Bayesian spatial models for three vertebrate and invertebrate taxa of conservation concern (Church’s sideband snails [Monadenia churchi], red tree voles [Arborimus longicaudus], and Pacific fishers [Martes pennanti pacifica]) that provide examples of a range of distributional extents and dispersal abilities. We used presence–absence data derived from regional monitoring programs to develop models with both landscape and site-level environmental covariates. We used Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithms and a conditional autoregressive or intrinsic conditional autoregressive model framework to fit spatial models. The fit of Bayesian spatial models was between 35 and 55% better than the fit of nonspatial analogue models. Bayesian spatialmodels outperformed analogousmodels developed with maximum entropy (Maxent) methods. Although the best spatial and nonspatial models included similar environmental variables, spatial models provided estimates of residual spatial effects that suggested how ecological processes might structure distribution patterns. Spatialmodels built from presence–absence data improved fit most for localized endemic species with ranges constrained by poorly known biogeographic factors and for widely distributed species suspected to be strongly affected by unmeasured environmental variables or population processes. By treating spatial effects as a variable of interest rather than a nuisance, hierarchical Bayesian spatial models, especially when they are based on a common broad-scale spatial lattice (here the national Forest Inventory and Analysis grid of 24 km2 hexagons), can increase the relevance of habitat models to multispecies conservation planning.