Combining human acceptance and habitat suitability in a unified socio-ecological suitability model: a case study of the wolf in Switzerland

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Summary

  1. Habitat suitability models (HSMs) are commonly used in conservation practise to assess the potential of an area to be occupied and colonised. A major limitation of these models, however, is the omission of spatially explicit understanding of human acceptance towards the focal species. As wildlife is more and more subject to human-dominated landscapes, ignoring the sociological component will result in misrepresentation of the observed processes and inappropriate management.
  2. We distributed 10 000 questionnaires across Switzerland and identified key socio-demographical factors correlated with human acceptance of the wolf. We then created a spatially explicit acceptance model based on geo-referenced socio-demographical, social and geographical information. Finally, we combined our acceptance model with a HSM to obtain a unified socio-ecological suitability model, which included human and ecological components.
  3. We showed that the key factors associated with human acceptance were perception of how harmful the wolf is, interest in wolf-related issues, need for livestock protection, and fear of the wolf. Perceived harmfulness was in turn correlated with direct and indirect experience with the wolf, and level of education.
  4. Our acceptance map predicted decreasing acceptance with increasing altitude of residency and proximity to locations of confirmed wolf presence. This resulted in the overall opposition to the wolf for the Alpine region, albeit substantial regional differences.
  5. We found little spatial overlap (6% of Switzerland) between areas where the wolf was accepted and areas of suitable habitat. These areas of socio-ecological suitability were concentrated in the Jura Mountains and in the eastern and southern Alps, and were absent in the western and central Alps. Particularly in the Jura region, which is yet to be colonised, management of human acceptance will be a crucial conservation target.
  6. Synthesis and applications. We developed an integrative, socio-ecological approach that allowed us to accurately reproduce recent wolf recolonisation. We anticipate our framework to be a powerful tool to reliably evaluate overall suitable habitats and predict short to medium-term range expansion for species whose distribution is also dependent on human attitudes. Because our approach is sensitive to both the ecological and human component, it is ideally suited to identify key regions where proactive and targeted socio-ecological management plans are needed.

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