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Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

Multi-scale Response of Lesser Prairie-Chickens to Future Changes in Land Use and Land Cover

Camille Rieber, M.S. Student

Project Supervisors:
Dr. David Haukos
Dr. Dan Sullins

Wildlife and Outdoor Enterprise Management, Kansas State University
Kansas Parks, Wildlife, and Tourism
Colorado Parks and Wildlife
Oregon State University

Start Date: 1 September 2020, 24 months (end date; August 31 2022)

Background: The lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) is a declining species of prairie- grouse that requires a large area (>20,000 ha of >65% grassland) and structural variation in vegetation among patches of land cover to fulfill their life-history needs. The species occupies grasslands and shrublands of the southwestern Great Plains including western Kansas, southeastern Colorado, panhandle of Oklahoma, northwest Texas, and east-central New Mexico, USA. There has been an estimated >90% decline in the abundance and perceived occupied range of lesser prairie-chickens since the early 1900s. Factors implicated in these declines includes conversion of grasslands and associated shrublands to cropland and other land uses; reduced habitat quality due to long-term incompatible management (e.g., extensive continuous grazing); development of anthropogenic infrastructure (e.g., roads, powerlines, communication towers, wind farms); invasive woody species (e.g., eastern redcedar [Juniperus virginiana]); climate change (i.e., increasing frequency and intensity of drought); long-term decline in grassland species composition (e.g., reduction in quality grass species and increase in grass species resistant to heavy grazing and haying pressure [i.e., sod-forming grasses instead of bunch grasses]); reduction in important sources of forage (e.g., native forbs); and changes in predator populations.

Petitioned for listing as a threatened or endangered species in 1996 under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, the species was listed as threatened in 2014, with the listing rule vacated in 2015, and eventual delisting in 2016. However, the lesser prairie-chicken is currently being considered again for listing by  the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with a final decision expected by May 2021. A number of actions were undertaking in response to the likelihood of initial listing. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted a formal Species Status Assessment. Landowner incentive programs were developed including the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service and Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Range-wide Conservation Plan with the intent to conserve the species across its range and eliminate the need for special protection.

Since 2013, the Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit (KS Unit) has led numerous studies into the ecology and conservation of lesser prairie-chickens across the northern range of the lesser prairie-chicken. In addition, the KS Unit has collaborated with other Units, state and federal agencies, and University researchers in all five states occupied by lesser prairie-chickens. Of note are the pioneering use of GPS satellite transmitters on lesser prairie-chickens; identification of the vital importance of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to sustainability of several populations; preliminary potential response to climate change predictions; effects of prescribed fire, grazing management, fence locations, free water, and landscape composition/configuration on population demography; and biases associated with survey methods.  These collaborations have resulted in a dramatic increase in the knowledge and data available for future policy and conservation strategy decisions. For example, just in Kansas and Colorado (>80% of extant lesser prairie-chickens), this work has generated 672,228 GPS points from 426 marked birds across the northern extent of the species range (blue shaded area is estimated occupied range in below figure) from 2013-2020 and nearly 100,000 vegetation and 600 nest sampling points along with associated data.

Map of GPS points from 426 marked birds

Currently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to conduct another Species Status Assessment analyses; the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is updating the Range-wide Conservation Plan; and USDA is refocusing the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative into a broader Grasslands            Initiative in the Working Lands for Wildlife Program. Of concern in these planning processes is the anticipated significant decline in CRP area by 2022, effects of continued changes in land use, and population response to a changing climate. All of these efforts will require additional knowledge, primarily in the form of predictive models, for informed assessment and adoption of revised  conservation strategies. Given the data assembled across the northern range of the species and in collaboration with researchers in the southern range, the following objectives will be accomplished to inform on-going assessment of the status of the lesser prairie-chickens and revision of existing conservation plans and strategies.


  • Develop a range-wide lesser prairie-chicken population model from four original regional population models in response to predicted changes in drought intensity and frequency (a primary driver of population trends). Projected climate models indicate some ecoregions will have climates that shift well outside of their historical ranges, but within climates of other Pooling regional models will incorporate additional data and help narrow the uncertainty of current models. We will model future population trends using downscaled climatic data instead of the global climate data used previously. The newly generated models will be highly adaptable and informative for future management.
  • Conduct metapopulation analyses to simulate and predict population response to anticipated changes in land use and land cover for the next 50 years in the northern extent of the lesser prairie-chicken Changes in CRP area, extent of invading woody vegetation, development of wind farms and other energy sources, changing cropping practices, and progress in conservation efforts will have differing effects across the northern extent of the lesser prairie- chicken range. Combining current fine scale remotely imaged land cover (NAIP, NLCD) and predictive changes in land cover (CRP expiration, Rangeland Analysis Platform), we will generate predictive models for location of quality habitat in the future to target current conservation efforts. We will use least-cost path analyses to determine potential corridors for movement of lesser prairie-chickens from areas of degrading habitat quality to areas designated for focused conservation efforts.
  • Use integrated population models to identify conservation actions that will have the greatest effect on population Unlike previous regional conservation models, these will take the novel approach of incorporating differential ecoregional response to conservation actions scaled up to the entire northern extent of the species range. Given that >80% of extant lesser prairie- chickens occur in the study region, quantifying the cumulative effect of local and regional conservation actions on the overall northern portion of the population will provide considerable insight into the collective effort to increase lesser prairie-chicken abundance and occupied range.

Godar (2016) developed an approach to incorporating downscaled climate projections to predict population trends and abundance using an integrated population model. Using that approach as an initial starting point, we will download fine-scale climate projections under a variety of emission scenarios to serve as potential indicators of future changes in temperature and precipitation. Nesting ecology of lesser prairie-chickens is greatly affected by thermal and precipitation conditions (Grisham et al. 2016). Predictions of population growth (λ) will be compared among various emissions scenarios.

Evaluation of changes in potential available habitat throughout the species occupied range based on predicted changes in climate will be used to predict future range of species and localized extinction risk due to climate change.

Land use and land cover have and will continue to change throughout the range of the lesser prairie- chicken. Given the importance of CRP for species persistence throughout the northern portion of the species range (Sullins et al. 2018), it is critical to predict the overall effect of changes in CRP (e.g., contract expiration, conversion to cropland) on occupied range and density of lesser prairie-chickens.

Furthermore, the continuing increase in anthropogenic structures and invading woody species (e.g., eastern redcedar), is constraining available habitat creating isolated populations (Sullins et al. 2019). Combining current fine-scale remotely imaged land cover (NAIP, NLCD) and predictive changes in land cover (CRP expiration, Rangeland Analysis Platform), we will generate predictive models in a geospatial modeling environment for location of future quality habitat capable of supporting populations of lesser prairie-chickens to target current conservation efforts. We will use least-cost path analyses and step selection approach to resource selection to determine potential corridors for movement of lesser prairie-chickens from areas of degrading habitat quality to areas designated for focused conservation efforts (Gulick 2019).

Ross et al. (2019) developed an integrated population model for lesser prairie-chickens. A number of projects have been completed during the past several years evaluating lesser prairie-chicken response to tree removal, livestock grazing, prescribed fire, and changes in plant species composition (e.g., Kraft 2016, Lautenbach 2017, Lautenbach et al. 2017). Potential effects of local, ecoregional, and large-scale (i.e., northern range) implementation of recommended conservation practices on population trends of lesser prairie-chickens will be assessed using the integrated population model. Differential responses among ecoregions (3 in the northern range) will be combined using a metapopulation approach to determine the relative value (i.e., effect size) of each conservation approach within each ecoregion and across all ecoregions. Dependent variables in this approach will be relative abundance and overall fitness (annual survival and recruitment).

Literature Cited:
Godar, A. 2016. Influence of climate change and landscape use on Lesser Prairie-Chicken population persistence in the sand sage and short grass prairies. Thesis, Texas Tech University, Lubbock.

Gulick, C. 2019. Spatial ecology and resource selection by female lesser prairie-chickens within their home ranges and during dispersal. Thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Grisham, B., A. Godar, D. Haukos, and C. Boal. 2016. Interactive effects between nest microclimate and nest vegetation structure confirm microclimate thresholds for Lesser Prairie-Chicken nest survival. Condor 118:728-746.

Kraft, J. 2016. Vegetation characteristics and lesser prairie-chicken responses to land cover types and grazing management in western Kansas. Thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Lautenbach, J.D. 2017. The role of fire, microclimate, and vegetation in lesser prairie-chicken habitat selection. Thesis, Kansas State University, Manhattan.

Lautenbach, J.M., R.T. Plumb, S.G. Robinson, D.A. Haukos, J.C. Pitman, and C.A. Hagen. 2017. Lesser prairie-chicken avoidance of trees in a grassland landscape. Rangeland Ecology and Management 70:78-86.

Ross, B.E., D.A. Haukos, C. Hagen, and J. Pitman. 2018. Combining multiple sources of data to inform conservation of Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations. Auk 135:228-239.

Sullins, D.S., J.D. Kraft, D.A. Haukos, S.G. Robinson, J. Reitz, R.T. Plumb, J.M. Lautenbach, J.D. Lautenbach, B.K. Sandercock, and C.A. Hagen. 2018. Selection and demographic consequences of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands for lesser prairie-chickens. Journal of Wildlife Management 82:1617-1632.

Sullins, D.S., D.A. Haukos, J.M. Lautenbach, J.D. Lautenbach, S.G. Robinson, M.B. Rice, B.K. Sandercock, J.D. Kraft, R.T. Plumb, J.H. Reitz, J.M.S. Hutchinson, and C.A. Hagen. 2019. Strategic regional conservation for lesser prairie-chickens among landscapes of varying anthropogenic influence. Biological Conservation 238 (2019) 108213

1 September 2020 – 31 August 2022, most of the work will be completed by Dec 2021 to be available to inform conservation planning, with the remainder of the Performance Period dedicated to publication of results, which can take 9-12 months.