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Land use change and habitat fragmentation of wildland ecosystems of the North Central United States

Title: Land use change and habitat fragmentation of wildland ecosystems of the North Central United States

Authors: Arjun Adhikari and Andrew J.Hansen

With a study area that includes some of the most productive agricultural lands in the world, changes to wildlands (e.g., forests and undeveloped open space) impact the societal and economic benefits we can gain from healthy ecosystems. NC CASC researchers studied land use change and habitat fragmentation in wildlands of the North Central region, including federal land like Yellowstone and other National Parks as well as surrounding private, state, and county lands that have not been subjected to intense land use. Findings will inform conservation stakeholders in prioritizing more rapidly-degrading ecosystems for management action.


  • Successful conservation of wildlands depends on delineation of their boundaries.
  • Wildlands in Central Plains of US experienced the highest LULC changes.
  • Most of North Central US wildlands were reduced by 50% after pre-settlement times.
  • The most fragmented wildlands was centered at Lake Traverse Indian Reservation.
  • Managers are likely to face challenges in keeping the wildland ecosystems intact.

Abstract: Wildlands and their ability to conserve biodiversity and provide ecosystem services are threatened by unprecedented land use intensification. Effective conservation of these wildlands depends on identifying their ecological boundaries and assessing land use change trajectories and habitat fragmentation within those boundaries. We evaluated the extent of land use intensification and fragmentation of six land cover classes and six ecosystem types within nine greater wildland ecosystems (GWEs) of three ecoregions in the north-central United States. Land use intensification across the ecoregions was characterized by assessing changes in NLCD land cover classes and housing density from 2000 to 2011. We used LANDFIRE BpS data to assess fragmentation effects on ecosystem types. We found relatively similar trends in land use intensification across the region with overall net changes by 1.2%, 1.1%, and 1% for the Central Plains, Western Mountains, and Western Plains, respectively. The study region has retained 58% of the area of original ecosystem types with a decrease of mean core area by −30% during the post-European period. The analysis revealed that some ecosystems either already lost over 70–80% area or are quickly approaching this threshold leading to an additional extinction of species due to land use intensification. This analysis can help managers in identifying sustainable conservation priorities to minimize surrounding land use patterns impacts on protected systems. We conclude that managers are likely to face multiple challenges to maintaining ecosystem conditions in their present or near present states while establishing connectivity with regional networks of protected lands.

Acknowledgements: We would like to acknowledge the funding and support received from U.S. Department of Interior North Central Climate Science Center (G14AP00181). Data for the housing density analysis was provided by D. Theobald. Katie Ireland, Tony Chang, and Amy Symstad reviewed earlier versions of the manuscript.

: nina perminova on Unsplash

Product Details: 
Peer Reviewed
USGS Publication
Impact Analysis