In the United States multispecies habitat conservation plans were meant to be the solution to conflicts between economic development and protection of biological diversity. Although now widely applied, questions exist concerning the scientific credibility of the conservation planning process and effectiveness of the plans. We used ants to assess performance of one of the first regional conservation plans developed in the United States, the Orange County Central-Coastal Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP), in meeting its broader conservation objectives of biodiversity and ecosystem-level protection. We collected pitfall data on ants for over 3 years on 172 sites established across a network of conservation lands in coastal southern California. Although recovered native ant diversity for the study area was high, site-occupancy models indicated the invasive and ecologically disruptive Argentine ant ( Linepithema humile) was present at 29% of sites, and sites located within 200 m of urban and agricultural areas were more likely to have been invaded. Within invaded sites, native ants were largely displaced, and their median species richness declined by more than 60% compared with uninvaded sites. At the time of planning, 24% of the 15,133-ha reserve system established by Orange County NCCP fell within 200 m of an urban or agricultural edge. With complete build out of lands surrounding the reserve, the proportion of the reserve system vulnerable to invasion will grow to 44%. Our data indicate that simply protecting designated areas from development is not enough. If habitat conservation plans are to fulfill their conservation promise of ecosystem-level protection, a more-integrated and systematic approach to the process of habitat conservation planning is needed.
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Ants as a measure of effectiveness of habitat conservation planning in southern California