We sought to identify priority areas for the conservation of Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus) habitat in the northern portion of the eastern Andean cordillera in Ecuador. The study area included páramo and montane forest habitats within the Antisana and Cayambe-Coca ecological reserves, and unprotected areas north of these reserves with elevations ranging from 1,800 to 4,300 m. We collected data on bear occurrence along 53 transects during 2000–01 in the Oyacachi River basin, an area of indigenous communities within the Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve. We used those data and a set of 7 environmental variables to predict suitability of Andean bear habitat using Mahalanobis distance, a multivariate measure of dissimilarity. The Mahalanobis distance values were classified into 5 classes of habitat suitability and generalized to a resolution of 1,650-m × 1,650-m grid cells. Clusters of grid cells with high suitability values were delineated from the generalized model and defined as important habitat areas (IHAs) for conservation. The IHAs were ranked using a weighted index that included factors of elevation range, influence from disturbed areas, and current conservation status. We identified 12 IHAs, which were mainly associated with páramo and cloud forest habitats; 2 of these areas have high conservation priorities because they are outside existing reserves and close to areas of human pressure. The distribution of the IHAs highlighted the role of human land use as the main source of fragmentation of Andean bear habitat in this region, emphasizing the importance of preserving habitat connectivity to allow the seasonal movements among habitat types that we documented for this species. Furthermore, the existence of areas with high habitat suitability close to areas of intense human use indicates the importance of bear–human conflict management as a critical Andean bear conservation strategy. We suggest that a promising conservation opportunity for this species is linked to its occurrence in highland habitats, which play a key role in the maintenance of long-term water supplies.
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Vol. 16 • No. 2