Environmental niche modeling is an increasingly common tool in conservation and management of non-timber species. In particular, models of species’ habitats have been aided by new advances in remote sensing and it is now possible to relate forest structure variables to understory species at a relatively high resolution over large spatial scales. Here, we model landscape responses for a culturally-valued keystone shrub, velvet-leaf blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides
Michaux), in northeast Alberta, Canada, to better understand the environmental factors promoting or limiting its occurrence, abundance, and fruit production, and to guide regional planning. Occurrence and abundance were measured at 845 and 335 sites, respectively, with both strongly related to land cover type and topo-edaphic factors. However, their influence varied widely, reflecting differences in the processes affecting occurrence and abundance. We then used airborne laser scanning (ALS) to characterize horizontal forest canopy cover for the study area, and related this and other geospatial variables to patterns in fruit production where we demonstrated a five-fold increase in fruit production from closed to open forest stands. We then simulated forest canopy thinning across the study area to identify places where gains in fruit production would be greatest following natural disturbance or directed management (e.g., thinning, prescribed burning). Finally, we suggest this approach could be used to identify sites for habitat enhancements to offset direct (land use change) or indirect (access) losses of resources in areas impacted with resource extraction activities, or simply to increase a culturally-valued resource through management.
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