Abstract The task of modeling the distribution of a large number of tree species under future climate scenarios presents unique challenges. First, the model must be robust enough to handle climate data outside the current range without producing unacceptable instability in the output. In addition, the technique should have automatic search mechanisms built in to select the most appropriate values for input model parameters for each species so that minimal effort is required when these parameters are fine-tuned for individual tree species. We evaluated four statistical models—Regression Tree Analysis (RTA), Bagging Trees (BT), Random Forests (RF), and Multivariate Adaptive Regression Splines (MARS)—for predictive vegetation mapping under current and future climate scenarios according to the Canadian Climate Centre global circulation model. To test, we applied these techniques to four tree species common in the eastern United States: loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), and white oak (Quercus alba). When the four techniques were assessed with Kappa and fuzzy Kappa statistics, RF and BT were superior in reproducing current importance value (a measure of basal area in addition to abundance) distributions for the four tree species, as derived from approximately 100,000 USDA Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis plots. Future estimates of suitable habitat after climate change were visually more reasonable with BT and RF, with slightly better performance by RF as assessed by Kappa statistics, correlation estimates, and spatial distribution of importance values. Although RTA did not perform as well as BT and RF, it provided interpretive models for species whose distributions were captured well by our current set of predictors. MARS was adequate for predicting current distributions but unacceptable for future climate. We consider RTA, BT, and RF modeling approaches, especially when used together to take advantage of their individual strengths, to be robust for predictive mapping and recommend their inclusion in the ecological toolbox.
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