Quantifying the impact of vegetation‐based metrics on species persistence when choosing offsets for habitat destruction

Date: 28, Jul, 2020
Author(s):   Marshall, E., Valavi, R., O'Connor, L., Cadenhead, N., Southwell, D., Wintle, B.A., Kujala, H.
Publisher: Conservation Biology

Developers are often required by law to offset environmental impacts through targeted conservation actions. Most offset policies specify metrics for calculating offset requirements, usually by assessing vegetation condition. Despite widespread use, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness of vegetation‐based metrics for ensuring biodiversity persistence. We compared long‐term impacts of biodiversity offsetting based on area only; vegetation condition only; area × habitat suitability; and condition × habitat suitability in development and restoration simulations for the Hunter Region of New South Wales, Australia. We simulated development and subsequent offsetting through restoration within a virtual landscape, linking simulations to population viability models for 3 species. Habitat gains did not ensure species persistence. No net loss was achieved when performance of offsetting was assessed in terms of amount of habitat restored, but not when outcomes were assessed in terms of persistence. Maintenance of persistence occurred more often when impacts were avoided, giving further support to better enforce the avoidance stage of the mitigation hierarchy. When development affected areas of high habitat quality for species, persistence could not be guaranteed. Therefore, species must be more explicitly accounted for in offsets, rather than just vegetation or habitat alone. Declines due to a failure to account directly for species population dynamics and connectivity overshadowed the benefits delivered by producing large areas of high‐quality habitat. Our modeling framework showed that the benefits delivered by offsets are species specific and that simple vegetation‐based metrics can give misguided impressions on how well biodiversity offsets achieve no net loss.