Evaluating habitat suitability for lesser prairie-chicken conservation in the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion

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Date

2022

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture

Abstract

Populations of lesser prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus; hereafter "prairie-chicken") in the southern Great Plains have declined by an estimated 85% and the species is currently being reconsidered for protections under the federal Endangered Species Act. Despite efforts to increase the quantity, quality, and connectivity of available habitat, prairie-chicken populations in the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion have remained relatively stable-to-declining. To provide information that will assist in providing more appropriate qualifications of available prairie-chicken habitat, I used ensemble modeling approaches and a least-cost path analysis to develop spatially-explicit predictions of prairie-chicken habitat and assess connectivity of identified habitat within the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion. In addition, I provided a critical comparison of the Western Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) Habitat Evaluation Guide and research-based field indices used to quantify the amount and quality of habitat for prairie-chicken conservation on a proprety participating in an incentive-based conservation program. I also explored the potential for using ecological site descriptions and relative condition (similarity index) to monitor reproductive habitat for prairie-chickens. Predictions from our ensembled model identified ~4,576 km 2 of potentially suitable prairie-chicken habitat both occupied and unoccupied. Least-cost path analyses revealed a low degree of connectivity between areas of occupied and unoccupied habitat indicating a low probability of natural recolonization. Managers should consider focusing conservation efforts on targeting habitat restoration between, within and around areas of identified occupied and unoccupied habitat. Habitat quality under the HEG habitat assessment protocol showed the property had excellent prairie-chicken habitat quality while research-based estimates showed the property only had marginal habitat quality for prairie-chickens. Differences in habitat quality assessments were in areas that had low percent cover of vegetation species preferred by prairie-chickens and in areas that had recently experienced fire. Thus, managers should consider using components of both habitat assessments protocols when quantifying habitat for prairie-chicken conservation to reduce the probability of producing erroneous estimates of habitat quality. Limited sample size within moderate categories of similarity index across ecological sites prevented us from reliably executing further analyses exploring the utility of using a similarity index as a tool for monitoring prairie-chicken habitat.

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