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Sources: Brett Sandercock, 785-532-0120, bsanderc@k-state.edu;
Samantha Wisely, 785-532-0978, wisely@k-state.edu;
and Robert Robel, 785-532-6644, rjrobel@k-state.edu
Photos available. Contact media@k-state.edu or 785-532-2535.
News release prepared by: Stephanie Jacques, 785-532-0101, sjacques@ksu.edu

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010

RESEARCHERS INVESTIGATE CAUSES OF POPULATION DECLINES OF PRAIRIE CHICKENS IN KANSAS

MANHATTAN -- In an avian equivalent of a rowdy campus bar, male Greater Prairie Chickens gather at booming grounds every spring to display for females. But long-term monitoring programs in Kansas have indicated major declines in this once common bird of the tallgrass prairie, according to two Kansas State University ecologists.

Investigating the population biology of prairie chickens has been the research focus of Brett Sandercock and Samantha Wisely, both associate professors in K-State's Division of Biology.

"Understanding ecological causes of declining numbers is an important first step in conservation," Sandercock said. "Our goal is to use a combination of genetic and demographic methods to understand the impacts of land use and land-cover change on prairie chicken population dynamics."

Field work at three sites in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills has been directed by three K-State graduate students in biology: Lance McNew, Council Grove; Lyla Hunt, Manhattan; and Andy Gregory, Wamego. The project started in 2006, and the research team has now captured and collected genetic samples from more than 1,300 prairie chickens; put radio collars on 320 females; located 380 nests; and collected 16,500 locations to describe movements and habitat requirements.

"Our students have had great working relationships with private landowners," Sandercock said. "The project couldn’t have been completed without support of ranchers and local communities."

Prairie chickens in Kansas have high genetic diversity and do not show any evidence of the inbreeding effects reported for more isolated populations, Wisely said. Reproductive potential is also good because females lay an average of about 13 eggs per nest and regularly re-nest if their first nest is destroyed.

"Population declines are clearly being driven by dismal rates of survival for nests, broods and incubating females," Sandercock said. "Most losses are due to predation, and our results are remarkably consistent among sites and years."

Predators have been investigated by videotaping prairie chicken nests and by deploying scent stations. Skunks, badgers and even gopher snakes have been recorded destroying eggs and young.

Reproductive success is so low that in some years at least seven nesting females are needed to produce a single juvenile prairie chicken, Sandercock said.

"High levels of predation appear to be related to rangeland management," he said. "Intensive grazing and annual burning removes vegetative cover that prairie chickens need for concealment during nesting, and the spread of woody plants in areas of fire suppression has aided recovery of predator populations."

"Regional managers are very interested in our research results," Wisely said. "We look forward to providing the field data needed to develop improved mitigation strategies."

The collaborative research effort was initiated by the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative Wildlife Workgroup Grassland and Shrub Steppe Species Subgroup to establish whether there are effects from wind structures to prairie chickens in the Midwest. The research team is focusing current research efforts around the Meridian Way Wind Farm, a 201-megawatt wind facility recently built in north central Kansas. The effects of rangeland management on productivity of prairie chickens were discovered before turbines were erected. New data from ongoing monitoring since completion of construction could be used to improve siting guidelines for wind power facilities in Kansas, according to Sandercock and Wisely.

Oversight for the research project was provided by the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy, BP Wind Energy, Competitive Power Ventures, Horizon Wind Energy, Iberdrola Renewables and Next Era Energy Resources.

The National Wind Coordinating Collaborative provides a neutral forum so a wide range of stakeholders can pursue the shared objective of developing environmentally, economically, and politically sustainable commercial markets for wind power in the United States. The Grassland and Shrub Steppe Species subgroup of the collaborative's Wildlife Workgroup brings together representatives from state and federal agencies, private industry, academic institutions and nongovernmental organizations in a collaborative effort to identify critical research questions; secure and administer cooperative funding to conduct research; encourage peer-reviewed collaborative research; and identify both potential impacts and mitigation strategies to address any impacts. More information on the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative is available at http://www.nationalwind.org.