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Kansas Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit

Reconstruction of landscape composition and vegetation characteristics in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion

Megan Vhay, M.S. Student

Project Supervisors:
Dr. David Haukos
Dr. Dan Sullins

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

Start Date: 1 September 2020, 36 months (August 31 2023)


(1) Reconstruct landscape composition and configuration in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion from the mid-1980s through 2019.

(2) Determine the potential influence of CRP on space use by lesser prairie-chickens in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion.

(3) Quantify temporal changes in vegetation composition and structure in the National Grasslands and previous study locations relative to contemporary measurements.

(4) Estimate the proportion of National Grasslands that currently provide habitat for lesser prairie-chickens based on previously published recommendations.

We will use satellite imagery (e.g., LandSat, GoogleEarth, LandFire) and aerial photographs (e.g., USDA, NAIP; U.S. Forest Service, USGS) at two-year intervals from 1986 through 2020 to create a temporal record of the landscape in the delineated Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion.  Each image will be spatially rectified and at a common scale.  Land cover (e.g., vegetation type) patches will be delineated with a polygon.  We will use FRAGSTATS to measure both landscape-scale and patch-scale land cover metrics (e.g., number of patches, patch size, edge, contagion, and others) to determine changes in land cover over time.  We will further assess the presence and relative location of anthropogenic features (e.g., roads, powerlines, oil and gas wells).  Following the approach used by Sullins et al. (2019), we will develop a species distribution model at two-year intervals to quantify changes in available habitat over time for lesser prairie-chickens.  Changes in the résistance of the landscape to movement (i.e., dispersal, connectivity) over time will be determined following the approach for determining least-cost path decisions by dispersing lesser prairie-chickens being developed by Verheijen and Haukos (unpublished data).

To evaluate the effect of adding CRP to the landscape on space use by lesser prairie-chickens, we will use location data for the translocated lesser prairie-chickens during 2017-2019 to generate home ranges (Brownian bridge movement models for satellite-tagged birds, kernel density estimates for very-high-frequency tagged birds) and conduct selection analyses to determine if the presence of CRP is causing differential space use (home range size, composition, selection ratios).  Furthermore, we will relate the effect of CRP use on daily and seasonal movements as well as seasonal and annual survival.  Finally, we will examine trends in lesser prairie-chicken abundance on survey routes in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion to determine if addition of CRP on the landscape resulted in detectable changes in abundance among or within survey routes.

We have acquired historical vegetation survey data for the National Grasslands recorded by the U.S. Forest Service.  Further, we anticipate acquiring historical data for the Comanche National Grasslands collected by Colorado Wildlife and Parks.  Additionally, we have access to vegetation data collected by Hagen and Pitman from 1998-2002 in a Finney County study area.  During 2018-2019, vegetation measurements were recorded over much of the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion.  Measured vegetation characteristics included Daubenmire horizontal cover, plant composition, and visual obstruction at the estimated location of lesser prairie-chicken used points and associated random points at various scales (within 4 m, 10 m, 20 m, and 50 m) of the point.  Line transects were used to characterize vegetation at the patch scale across the study area.  To the extent possible, we will compare historical data to contemporary data to evaluate changes in plant composition, structure, and cover using univariate and multivariate linear models, ordination techniques, and diversity indices.

There are established management recommendations for lesser prairie-chickens in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion (Haukos et al. 2016).  Additionally, the U.S. Forest Service and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (Range-wide Plan) have recommendations for vegetation composition and structure.  Using spatially explicit historical and contemporary vegetation data, we will estimate the temporal change in the proportion of the landscape that represents quality habitat (i.e., meet management recommendations).

Upon completion of this project, we anticipate insights into the role of landscape changes and changes in habitat quality on population trends of lesser prairie-chickens in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion.  During the course of the study, we will be able to use historical and contemporary vegetation, space use, and demography data to test any developing or new hypotheses regarding potential factors influencing lesser prairie-chicken population trends in the Sand Sagebrush Prairie Ecoregion.

Time Line:
We propose to start a MS graduate student in September 2020. The student will initiate data collection and analyses during fall 2020, following completion of a detailed research proposal.  The student would prepare a proposal during Fall 2020 with a completed thesis during Spring 2023, with a final report provided by August 31, 2023. Annual progress reports will be provided by Sept 1, 2021 and Sept 1, 2022.   Project duration will be September 1, 2020 – August 31, 2023.