The importance of patch attributes and context to the management and recovery of an endangered lagomorph

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We investigated the role of patch attributes and context on patch occupancy of the Lower Keys marsh rabbit (Sylvilagus palustris hefneri). The Lower Keys marsh rabbit is a federally endangered lagomorph endemic to the Lower Keys of Florida. The marsh rabbit occurs in subpopulations on patches of high marsh that interact to form a metapopulation. Between March 1991 and July 1993, all known patches of high marsh in the Lower Keys were surveyed for presence or absence of marsh rabbit pellets three times per year. Of the 59 habitat patches, 20 had pellets present during all of the surveys (occupied patches), 22 had pellets present during at least one survey (variable patches), and 17 never had any pellets present (empty). Ten variables were measured at each of the 59 patches; seven of these variables concerned attributes of the patch (food, cover, patch size), and three were patch context variables (distance of patch to other patches, distance of patch to other features). Two discriminant function analysis (DFA) were performed. The first DFA compared empty patches to occupied patches (both variably and consistently occupied). Patch isolation explained the most variation in patch occupancy followed by area. The second DFA compared the variably occupied sites with the consistently occupied sites, and patch attributes variables involving the type and height of vegetation were significant. Management efforts for the Lower Keys marsh rabbit should be aimed at both improving habitat quality and decreasing distance between patches.

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