Demographic responses of woodpeckers in relation to a mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Elkhorn Mountains of Montana

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Letters & Science


Mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae; MPB) epidemics in coniferous forests of western North America have recently increased in size and severity, which affects wildlife habitat. Development of meaningful habitat-conservation strategies therefore requires information on wildlife population responses to mountain pine beetle. Over nine years (2003-2006, 2009-2013), we monitored 355 nests of 5 woodpecker species: American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), hairy woodpecker (P. villosus), downy woodpecker (P. pubescens), red-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus cafer), and red-naped sapsucker (Sphyrapicus nuchalis) in the Elkhorn Mountains of Montana. In our study area, a MPB epidemic began in 2006 and peaked in 2008. We investigated the relationships between daily survival rate (DSR) and metrics of epidemic severity and timing (epidemic period, annual and cumulative estimates of tree-mortality, and red squirrel [Tamiasciurus hudsonicus] counts) while accounting for other potentially important covariates identified in previous studies (temperature, precipitation, time within the breeding season, nest height, diameter at breast height of the nest tree, and nest-tree species). Additionally, we examined trends in densities of hatched nests concurrent with the epidemic. In general, we found little support for a relationship between DSR and variables that described MPB epidemic timing and severity. Red-naped sapsucker was the only species to show a relationship between DSR and a MPB-related variable (cumulative tree-mortality). In contrast, densities of hatched nests for American three-toed, hairy, and downy woodpeckers increased following the epidemic, whereas, nest densities for red-naped sapsucker did not change. We found stronger support for nest survival relationships with covariates unrelated to the MPB epidemic (temperature, nest height, diameter at breast height of the cavity tree), but even these relationships were only weakly supported. As is commonly the case for cavity-nesting birds, nest survival was relatively high, leaving little room for covariate relationships. Our findings suggest that woodpecker populations tend to relate positively with MPB epidemics, although these relationships may often be the result of numerical increases in nest densities rather than functional increases in nest survival rates.




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