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Ecology, Conservation, and Management of Grouse: Published for the Cooper Ornithological Society

Ecology, Conservation, and Management of Grouse: Published for the Cooper Ornithological Society

by Brett K. Sandercock

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Grouse—an ecologically important group of birds that include capercaillie, prairie chickens, and ptarmigan—are distributed throughout the forests, grasslands, and tundra of Europe, Asia, and North America. Today, many grouse populations are in decline, and the conservation and management of these charismatic birds is becoming a global concern. This volume


Grouse—an ecologically important group of birds that include capercaillie, prairie chickens, and ptarmigan—are distributed throughout the forests, grasslands, and tundra of Europe, Asia, and North America. Today, many grouse populations are in decline, and the conservation and management of these charismatic birds is becoming a global concern. This volume summarizes current knowledge of grouse biology in 25 chapters contributed by 80 researchers from field studies around the world. Organized in four sections—Spatial Ecology, Habitat Relationships, Population Biology, and Conservation and Management—the chapters offer important insights into spatial requirements, movements, and demography of grouse. Much of the research employs emerging tools in ecology that span biogeochemistry, molecular genetics, endocrinology, radio-telemetry, and remote sensing. The chapters explore topics including the impacts of climate change, energy development, and harvest, and give new evidence for life-history changes in response to human activities.

Editorial Reviews

Wilson Journal Of Ornithology

"As this volume demonstrates, grouse remain ideal research subjects to explore a wide variety of topics important to ornithologists.”
Environment Canada

“[This] new volume summarizes current knowledge of grouse biology from field studies around the world.”
Ibis - G. R. Potts

“Full of the detail.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
Studies in Avian Biology , #39
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Barnes & Noble
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4 MB

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Ecology, Conservation, and Management of Grouse

By Brett K. Sandercock, Kathy Martin, Gernot Segelbacher


Copyright © 2011 Cooper Ornithological Society
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95057-3


Spatially Explicit Habitat Models for Prairie Grouse

Neal D. Niemuth

Abstract. Loss, fragmentation, and isolation of grassland habitat have greatly reduced the range and numbers of prairie grouse (Tympanuchus spp.) across North America. Because prairie grouse are resident, area-sensitive species with relatively limited dispersal abilities, landscape characteristics such as the amount, types, and configuration of habitat influence the presence, abundance, and persistence of prairie grouse populations. Therefore, a landscape approach that uses spatially explicit models to guide prairie grouse conservation is both appropriate and necessary. To be effective for conservation, landscape models must incorporate prairie grouse biology, be developed at appropriate scales, and use accurate data with spatial and thematic resolution that are sufficiently fine to target sites for specific conservation actions. Uncertainties regarding the ecology of prairie grouse need to be addressed, including the form of relationships between the amount of habitat and the presence, density, and persistence of prairie grouse; and how landscape characteristics influence local movements, dispersal, and gene flow. Because many spatially explicit landscape models are developed using lek data, additional information is needed as to what lek counts represent to local prairie grouse populations. Adoption and implementation of a landscape approach to prairie grouse conservation will require that management perspectives be broadened to explicitly include landscapes and that development of landscape models shifts, at least in part, from the realm of research to that of management. Successful conservation of prairie grouse will require resolution of substantial socioeconomic and political obstacles, as well as an increased commitment from the conservation community to broad-scale habitat conservation.

Key Words: conservation, Greater Prairie-Chicken, landscape ecology, Lesser Prairie-Chicken, scale, Sharp-tailed Grouse, spatially explicit habitat model.

Loss and fragmentation of grassland and shrubland habitat in North America have dramatically reduced the numbers and range of North American prairie grouse (Tympanuchus spp.). For example, the Greater Prairie-Chicken (T. cupido pinnatus) was once found in portions of approximately 17 U.S. states and 4 Canadian provinces (Ross et al. 2006), but presently is in danger of extirpation in 7 of the 11 states in which it is found (Schroeder and Robb 1993). The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (T. pallidicinctus) is still found in all 5 of the states in which it originally occurred (Giesen 1998), but by 1980 its range had been reduced 92% from the 1800s ( Taylor and Guthery 1980a). The Sharp-tailed Grouse (T. phasianellus) originally was found in 21 states and 8 provinces, but has since been extirpated from 8 states, and populations are small and isolated in much of the southern and eastern portions of its present range (reviewed in Connelly et al. 1998).

The primary cause of the declines for prairie grouse is broad-scale loss of grassland and brushland habitat. Concern about the effects of widespread habitat loss on bird populations has prompted recent bird conservation initiatives to adopt a landscape approach to conservation planning and implementation. The first of these was the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP; U.S. Department of Interior and Environment Canada 1986), which, through the action of bird conservation joint ventures guided in part by landscape models, has positively influenced more than 5 million ha of breeding, migration, and wintering waterfowl habitat in North America (Abraham et al. 2007). Following the successes of the NAWMP, other efforts, including the Grassland Conservation Plan for Prairie Grouse (Vodehnal and Haufler 2007), have explicitly adopted a landscape approach to conservation planning.

An appreciation of the importance of landscapes to prairie grouse is not new: lacking radio-telemetry technology to track individuals, early researchers used lek counts, harvest monitoring, field surveys, and incidental observations to note the effects of patch size (Ammann 1957), isolation (Grange 1948), disturbance regimes (Grange 1948, Ammann 1957), and landscape composition and configuration (Grange 1948, Hamerstrom et al. 1957, Westemeier 1971) on the presence, size, and persistence of prairie grouse populations. However, the development of remotely sensed spatial data, geographic information systems (GIS), and statistical modeling techniques provides present-day researchers with unprecedented ability to identify and quantify relationships between landscape characteristics and prairie grouse (Kareiva and Wennergren 1995, Stauffer 2002, Wiens 2002). Increasingly isolated and declining populations of prairie grouse increase the impetus to explore relationships between landscape characteristics and grouse populations and identify the most appropriate locations for conservation.

The effects of habitat loss, fragmentation, and isolation may take place at a scale much broader in extent than the patches or habitat clusters occupied by local populations of prairie grouse, which is the scale at which prairie grouse are often studied and managed. Population dynamics of prairie grouse on managed reserves are often synchronous with adjacent populations off managed areas (Bergerud 1988a, Morrow et al. 1996), indicating that broad-scale as well as local factors influence prairie grouse populations. Because prairie grouse populations may be influenced by landscape factors out of the control or consideration of local efforts, conservation may fail if a landscape context is not considered, particularly if local populations are connected at landscape or regional scales by movements and if prairie grouse exhibit a metapopulation structure or source/sink dynamics. The need to consider landscape ecology and geospatial information in grouse conservation has previously been noted (Braun et al. 1994, Morrow et al. 1996, Samson et al. 2004), but specific relationships, hypotheses, and information needs have rarely been identified as they relate to prairie grouse.

Spatially explicit models provide a means of specifying relationships between landscape characteristics and species in a manner that is intuitive to use in conservation applications. The general class of models that includes species distribution models, spatially explicit population models, conservation design, or spatial planning tools provides a habitat-based context for conservation over broad spatial extents (Beissinger et al. 2006). These models differ from metapopulation models in that the entire landscape is considered in the context of multiple variables describing landscape characteristics rather than the presence or absence of populations in discrete habitat patches (Moilanen and Hanski 2001, Tischendorf and Fahrig 2001). Models are spatially explicit because they use digital landcover data to consider the spatial configuration of habitat and objects and create maps showing modeled characteristics across the area of interest.

Recent improvements in spatial analysis software and availability of spatial data have led to increased interest in using spatially explicit models to direct conservation actions (Wiens 2002). However, although landscape approaches to bird conservation are popular, the development and application of spatially explicit models that result in improved conservation efficiency is a complex process that must consider many aspects of biology, statistics, data quality, scaling, and implementation (Shenk and Franklin 1991, Scott et al. 2002, Millspaugh and Thompson 2008). As is the case with any model, ignoring the complexities of model development can lead to landscape models that are inaccurate and misleading.

Spatially explicit landscape models offer several benefits for conservation. When landscape models are applied to appropriate GIS layers, the resulting maps can be used to guide prairie grouse conservation and management, including translocating prairie grouse or linking prairie grouse populations (McDonald and Reese 1998, Niemuth 2003). When suitable data are available, landscape models can be used to assess the effects of environmental perturbations such as energy development (i.e., wind, oil, and gas), conversion of grassland to cropland, or the benefits of programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Disturbance to prairie grouse can be minimal, as data collection for landscape models based on lek counts does not require trapping or handling of birds. There is considerable precedent for using lek-based landscape analyses to study the spatial ecology of prairie grouse (Westemeier 1971, Pepper 1972, Merrill et al. 1999, Niemuth 2000, Woodward et al. 2001), but there is also potential to apply this approach to conservation.

In this review, I summarize biological characteristics of prairie grouse that make them sensitive to landscape characteristics, review theories important to the landscape ecology of prairie grouse, and present ideas for landscape-scale research, conservation, and management of prairie grouse. My review focuses on analyses using lek location, attendance, and persistence as response variables in spatially explicit habitat models, acknowledging the desirability of incorporating information from more intensive, local studies into models and management. The primary premise of this approach is that conservation efforts should occur over broad areas, so landscape models may better inform conservation actions than detailed studies of local populations.


Several biological traits of prairie grouse make them sensitive to the amount and configuration of habitat as well as small population size, the effects of which are compounded by loss and fragmentation of habitat. Prairie grouse have fairly narrow habitat requirements and occur at low densities relative to many other gamebirds. In addition, prairie grouse are area sensitive, requiring large blocks or aggregations of habitat to be present (Ammann 1957, Niemuth 2000, Woodward et al. 2001). Area sensitivity is typically associated with increased probability of a species being present in an area, but prairie grouse also may be area sensitive in that reproductive success (Ryan et al. 1998, Manzer and Hannon 2005), density (Pepper 1972, Niemuth 2000), and persistence of leks or populations (Merrill et al. 1999, Woodward et al. 2001) also increase with amount of suitable habitat. Finally, prairie grouse are resident species, which are generally more susceptible to loss and fragmentation of habitat than latitudinal migrants (Bender et al. 1998).

As resident species, prairie grouse generally are not known to migrate or move long distances, even when juveniles disperse in fall. Mean dispersal distance for a brood of six transmitter-equipped juvenile Greater Prairie-Chickens in Kansas was 1.0 km, and maximum recorded dispersal for 24 juveniles was 10.8 km (Bowman and Robel 1977). Maximum recorded dispersal for a transmitter-equipped juvenile Lesser Prairie-Chicken in Texas was 12.8 km (Taylor and Guthery 1980b). Maximum recorded dispersal for a transmitter-equipped juvenile female Sharp-tailed Grouse in Wisconsin was 5.8 km (Gratson 1988), and 59% of banded juvenile Sharp-tailed Grouse reported by hunters in South Dakota were recovered <1 km from the site where they were trapped (Robel et al. 1972). Prairie grouse can make longer total movements (Moe 1999), but intermediate habitat patches are critical for maintaining connectivity between populations and providing "stepping stones" for these movements (Hamerstrom and Hamerstrom 1973). Some populations of prairie grouse migrated in the past (Grange 1948, Ammann 1957), but the proportion of the population that migrated and distances that birds migrated are unknown. Partial migration, where a portion of the population moves between breeding and wintering areas, is evident in some populations of prairie grouse. In Colorado, female and male Greater Prairie-Chickens showed seasonal movements of 9.2 and 2.7 km, respectively, between breeding and wintering areas, with birds showing fidelity to leks, general nest sites, and wintering areas (Schroeder and Braun 1993). Greater Prairie-Chickens in the Sandhills of Nebraska also showed evidence of migration, apparently to winter in areas with grain for food (Kobriger 1965).

Limited movements by prairie grouse reduce interchange among subpopulations, with subsequent reductions in gene flow, both historically and following recent anthropogenic habitat loss (Johnson et al. 2003, Van den Bussche et al. 2003, Bouzat and Johnson 2004, Ross et al. 2006). Many populations of prairie grouse exhibit limited genetic diversity as a consequence of the lek mating system, low nest success, and historic population bottlenecks; these problems are exacerbated by the small size of many prairie grouse populations and reduced gene flow between populations that are increasingly isolated in the landscape (Bouzat et al. 1998, Westemeier et al. 1998a, Bouzat and Johnson 2004, Johnson et al. 2004). Limited movements among isolated populations reduce the potential for demographic rescue and maintenance of genetic diversity (Westemeier et al. 1998a, Reed 1999, Niemuth 2005). However, as important and problematic as loss of genetic diversity may be, it is largely a symptom of broadscale habitat loss and isolation.

Many ecological processes that affect prairie grouse are influenced by landscape characteristics. Nesting success is considered the primary driver of grouse population dynamics (Bergerud 1988b, Peterson and Silvy 1996, Wisdom and Mills 1997), and the community composition and behavior of many nest predators are influenced by landscape characteristics (Pedlar et al. 1997, Sovada et al. 2000, Phillips et al. 2004, Manzer and Hannon 2005). Consequently, nesting success of prairie grouse can increase with the proportion of grassland in the surrounding landscape (Ryan et al. 1998, Manzer and Hannon 2005). Landscape characteristics of sites used by Ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) differed from those of sites used by Lesser Prairie-Chickens (Hagen et al. 2007a), suggesting that the potential for aggression and interspecific nest parasitism may vary across the landscape (see Vance and Westemeier 1979, Westemeier et al. 1998b). Large, newly created areas of habitat sometimes support high densities of grouse (reviewed in Bergerud 1988a). The mechanisms for this "big new space" phenomenon are unknown, but may include changes in vegetation structure, increased food availability, low predator densities, the creation of habitat patches that facilitate dispersal, or a lag in the establishment of predator populations (Bergerud 1988a, Niemuth and Boyce 2004). Anthropogenic processes associated with landscape composition can also influence reproductive success, as nests and young are often destroyed by farm equipment when prairie grouse nest in hay fields or stubble (Yeatter 1963, Pepper 1972, Ryan et al. 1998). Similarly, the distribution of fences and power lines, which can influence habitat use and cause substantial mortality of prairie grouse, is also associated with landscape composition and land use (Patten et al. 2005, Wolfe et al. 2007, Hagen et al., this volume, chapter 5). Population dynamics may be particularly sensitive to mortality if breeding females are more vulnerable than other sex-age classes, as is the case with loss of hens on nests (Hagen et al. 2007b).


Several key concepts underlie the development and application of spatially explicit habitat models for conservation. First, the approach assumes that habitat selection is a hierarchical process where birds first consider regional and landscape characteristics before selecting habitat at a finer scale, such as the home range, nest, or foraging site (Wiens 1973). Conservation planning therefore focuses on the landscape scale, and provides context for local management actions. If habitat is purchased or otherwise selected for management based on landscape characteristics, then local characteristics of the grassland, such as vegetation composition and structure, can be modified relatively easily. Conversely, it is more difficult to modify the landscape around a patch with suitable local characteristics in an unsuitable landscape matrix. Local characteristics such as vegetation height, density, and composition will vary from year to year with precipitation, land use, grazing intensity, fire, and other edaphic factors; a landscape approach focuses on maintaining appropriate landscape conditions so that species can persist through time and flourish when local conditions are good.


Excerpted from Ecology, Conservation, and Management of Grouse by Brett K. Sandercock, Kathy Martin, Gernot Segelbacher. Copyright © 2011 Cooper Ornithological Society. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"As this volume demonstrates, grouse remain ideal research subjects to explore a wide variety of topics important to ornithologists."—Wilson Journal of Ornithology

"[This] new volume summarizes current knowledge of grouse biology from field studies around the world."—Environment Canada

"Full of the detail."—Ibis

Meet the Author

Brett K. Sandercock is Associate Professor in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. Kathy Martin is Professor in the Department of Forest Sciences and Director of the Centre for Alpine Studies at the University of British Columbia. Gernot Segelbacher is Lecturer at the University of Freiburg in Germany.

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