Landscapes across the globe are increasingly subject to alteration by humans, with the associated land use changes affecting the biodiversity (Visconti et al. 2016). In such human-dominated landscapes survival of species crucially depends on habitat connectivity which, for example, facilitates gene flow among subpopulations and enhances resilience to climate change and other disturbances (Bellard et al. 2012). Wildlife corridors are commonly used as a conservation strategy to counter the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation (Chetkiewicz et al. 2006). However, while wildlife corridors are very often designed as a result of strategic planning on the international, national or regional level, their functioning crucially depends on changes in local land use, what may trigger conflicts. This is especially problematic in Polish mountain areas, due to strong urbanisation pressure and relatively weak local planning regulations.
The aim of this work is to assess the projected land use changes (till 2060) on functioning of wildlife corridors and their surroundings in the western part of the Polish Carpathians. The study area is crucial for biodiversity conservation at the national and international level, as it is crossed by the main Carpathian wildlife corridor providing connection with forests in Slovakia and Czechia. On the other hand, the area is subjected to two major land use processes resulting from the political transformation since end of 1980s: (1) agricultural land abandonment leading to forest cover increase, and (2) spread of built-up areas together with infrastructure and transport development (Kaim, 2017). While land abandonment and forest cover increase are positive processes for habitat and connectivity improvements of many species (especially forest specialists), settlement and transport infrastructure negatively impact wildlife by fragmenting habitats, restricting species movements and increasing disturbances such as vehicle use and poaching (Ziółkowska et al. 2016).
We assessed future land cover changes within and in the surroundings of wildlife corridors based on three scenarios, ‘trend’, ‘liberalisation’ and ‘self-sufficiency’ (Price et al., 2016). Although all scenarios projected forest and overgrown increase in the study area (the highest rate was reported for the ‘liberalisation’ scenario), forest cover expanded mainly in the corridors’ surroundings, while overgrown predominated within corridors. Potential increase in settlements also differed within and outside of corridors. While in the ‘trend’ scenario settlements developed mainly within corridors limiting their permeability and creating several movement bottlenecks , the opposite was observed in the ‘self-sufficiency’ scenario. Our results showed that, it is the local land use processes and management that determine the functioning of the Carpathian wildlife corridor, while strategic planning should shape the wildlife conservation influencing local land use decisions.
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