Trees, cows and drought, oh my! Developing science to guide lesser prairie chicken conservation.

My primary research focus stems from my current role as Science Advisor to the US LPCI - still frame grab copyDepartment of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI). In this capacity I have two primary directives 1) to develop spatially explicit decision support tools to guide where and when conservation activities should occur, and 2) collaborate with independent researchers to evaluate the outcomes of these broad-scale conservation actions.  In a nutshell, it is a 3-tiered monitoring scheme: I) fine-scaled highly detailed bird work “petri-dish studies,” measuring bird response to specific management prescriptions (e.g., grazing management, tree removal); II) mid-scale using GIS and spatial modelling to evaluate regional outcomes; and III) using hierarchical occupancy modelling to assess distributional shifts of birds as a function of habitat and conservation actions range-wide.

Since 2012, science-based tools have been implemented to target the removal of invasive eastern redcedar, invasive honey mesquite, and identifying native prairie and CRP landscapes at greatest risk of conversion to tillage agriculture for short- and long-term easements. These tools were developed at a regional scale (tier-II) such that the extent and potential cost of each threat could be quantified.   Three Master’s projects have been completed at Kansas State University ( that specifically address the effectiveness of LPCI practices to benefiting Lesser Prairie-Chicken ecology. University level field research continues to address the effects of livestock grazing, and tree removal on LEPCs, and additional work has begun at Oklahoma State University, Texas Tech University (, and New Mexico State University (

Sage-Grouse and Catastrophic Wildfire:  Try and rebuild or find a new home?

In the summer of 2012, wildfires burned more than 475,000 ha of sagebrush habitat in trtcreekbroodsoutheastern Oregon and northeastern Nevada. The Holloway fire alone burned > 186,000 ha, including the entire Trout Creek Mountain sage-grouse core area which hosted one of the densest sage-grouse populations in Oregon. While the effects of wildfire on sage-grouse populations have been studied for small wildfires, generally multiple years after the fire, or on prescribed burns, there is currently no information on the short-term (acute) response of sage-grouse populations to large scale wildfire (>100,000 ha).

Two months post-fire Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began to evaluate the effects of the Holloway fire on local sage-grouse populations.  They initiated a pilot study, placing VHF radio-transmitters on 20 sage-grouse captured in Oregon within the Holloway fire boundary in October 2012.  The pilot project evolved (in collaboration with Co-PI, Katie Dugger) into marking female sage-grouse (~30 per year) with GPS-PTT transmitters to examine demographic rates, movements and space use in a post catastrophic wildfire landscape.

Now heading into year four, patterns are starting to emerge.  A strongly philopatric and long-lived species such as the sage-grouse can be slow to adapt, and are attempting to “rebuild” rather than find a new home. The lack of plasticity in responding to the fire has a fitness cost in terms of reproductive success and markedly reduced adult survival.  Linking these demographics to space use is our next challenge in attempting to unravel how we might improve restoration efforts post-fire to benefit grouse.

Warner Mountains Juniper Removal: Are there biological benefits to sage-grouse?

Greater sage-grouse have experienced population declines due to loss and fragmentation of proactive_juniperhabitat. In the Great Basin the primary driver has been conifer encroachment. Little research has been conducted to specifically evaluate the effect. Western juniper distribution in the Great Basin has increased ~10-fold since pre-European settlement, but, although juniper management is becoming more widespread, there is a paucity of data regarding how juniper encroachment and management may actually affect sage-grouse. Our goal is to assess specific effects of juniper encroachment and management on demographics and space use at multiple spatial scales.

In 2009, we began a Before-After Control-Impact (BACI) study where ~10,000 ha of early encroaching trees were to be removed on BLM and private lands in the Warner Mountains.   Initially, we used VHF transmitters, annually marking ~40 female grouse in each the treatment and control areas.  The patterns of avoidance to existing encroachment is evident, we are anxiously awaiting the results of bird response to tree removal-stay tuned!

In this next phase of the BACI (2015-18) we will be transitioning to GPS-PTT transmitters to acquire finer resolution movement and space use data. Again linking demography to space use. This information will be vital in determining how conifer encroachment effects sage-grouse populations as well as informing management actions aimed at ecosystem restoration. This project is a broad partnership including Lakeview Distict BLM, University of Idaho, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Pheasants Forever.