Multiple drivers, scales, and interactions influence southern Appalachian stream salamander occupancy
Understanding how factors that vary in spatial scale relate to population abundance is vital to
forecasting species responses to environmental change. Stream and river ecosystems are inherently hierarchical, potentially resulting in organismal responses to fine-scale changes in patch characteristics that are conditional on the watershed context. Here, we address how populations of two salamander species are affected by interactions among hierarchical processes operating at different scales within a rapidly changing landscape of the southern Appalachian Mountains. We modeled reach-level occupancy of larval and adult black-bellied salamanders (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) and larval Blue Ridge two-lined salamanders (Eurycea wilderae) as a function of 17 different terrestrial and aquatic predictor variables that varied in spatial extent. We found that salamander occurrence varied widely among streams within fully forested catchments, but also exhibited species-specific responses to changes in local conditions. While D. quadramaculatus declined predictably in relation to losses in forest cover, larval occupancy exhibited the strongest negative response to forest loss as well as decreases in elevation. Conversely, occupancy of E. wilderae was unassociated with watershed conditions, only responding negatively to higher proportions of fast-flowing stream habitat types. Evaluation of hierarchical relationships demonstrated that most fine-scale variables were closely correlated with broad watershed-scale variables, suggesting that local reach-scale factors have relatively smaller effects within the context of the larger landscape. Our results imply that effective management of southern Appalachian stream salamanders must first focus on the larger scale condition of watersheds before management of local-scale conditions should proceed. Our findings confirm the results of some studies while refuting the results of others, which may indicate that prescriptive recommendations for range-wide management of species or the application of a single management focus across large geographic areas is inappropriate.