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Kimberly With received a $219,414 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results/STAR Wildlife Risk Assessment Program for the project, "Assessment of Extinction Risk in Dynamic Landscapes." In April 2001, her article in Biological Conservation was selected "outstanding paper in the field of landscape ecology" by the U.S. Regional Association of the International Association for Landscape Ecology.


Will songbirds find a home on the range?

By Kay Garrett



Going, going, gone . . .




"Everyone knows about the dinosaur extinction event 65 million years ago," said Kimberly A. With, a Kansas State University associate professor of biology.

"But many people don't understand that species extinction occurred in recent history. It's tremendous what we've lost in just the last 150 years. For example, the Passenger Pigeon was probably the most abundant bird on the planet, and it's gone," With said. "Most importantly, people need to know there's an extinction crisis in the world right now."

Species are being threatened in every habitat on every continent, including Kansas, according to the World Conservation Union. In almost every case, habitat loss and fragmentation from human activity pose the greatest threat to biodiversity.

In addition to teaching conservation biology, With directs K-State's Laboratory for Landscape and Conservation Ecology. Gregory Schrott joined the landscape ecology lab in January after completing the Ph.D. at UCLA. A big part of the lab's work is computer simulation modeling of how landscape changes affect extinction risk, in particular, the risk to birds.

This is crisis intervention work.

"The rate at which many species are being threatened by habitat loss and habitat fragmentation as well as some other factors means we don't have the luxury of time nor funding to develop species-specific models for every species that's now of conservation concern," With said.

She and Schrott are studying changes to the prairie landscape and the declining populations of certain of the Neotropical migratory songbirds — the backyard feeder favorites that winter in the tropics and migrate north each spring in search of breeding habitat, a home on the range. What the songbirds find or will not find is the problem.

"Of all the bird groups in North America, the grassland birds we associate with the tall grass prairie of Kansas and the Flint Hills are exhibiting the most dramatic declines, the most widespread declines, the steepest and fastest declines," With said.

The Flint Hills region may well be the last stronghold for many breeding populations of these migratory grassland birds. If this region is threatened or jeopardized because additional prairie is lost or more pastureland is converted to other uses, or the pastures are infested with woody species like red cedar, then, says Schrott, we may see an even greater effect on these birds.

Using computer simulation models of landscape change, scientists and conservation biologists will be able to look at a landscape and at how it will change over time and see if we are going to be able to maintain viable, healthy populations of species of concern, With said.

"Conservation efforts will be more effective and less costly to taxpayers when there's a tool to identify and deal with habitat loss and declining populations before it's necessary to restore habitat, or reintroduce species, or do captive propagation programs," she said.

So far, models indicate that species' extinction risk depends not only on the amount of habitat loss but also the degree and pattern of fragmentation. In other words, if habitat is going to be destroyed, it's preferable to leave large clumps of habitat on the landscape instead of creating lots of small habitat patches. Models indicate there's a critical level of habitat loss specific for each species after which its chance of surviving declines abruptly.

The next big question the K-State researchers will tackle: how important to species persistence is the rate at which its habitat is lost or fragmented?

"That's where we are now," With said, "trying to show that the rate of habitat change may be just as important, if not more so, than the fact that we are losing so much habitat."

June 2002