What’s Good for Sage Grouse is Good for Sparrows, Thrashers, and Ranchers Too

RMBO field technicians on their way to survey birds on the sagebrush landscape.

What do Brewer’s Sparrow, Sage Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, and Greater Sage-Grouse have in common?  You guessed it, sagebrush vegetation. And like the iconic sage grouse, populations of these birds are in decline. Partners in Flight and the Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) have identified each bird as a conservation priority.

Conservation practices implemented under the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) are being evaluated in terms of benefits to other sagebrush-dependent birds. Many conservation partners believe that it may be a cost-effective conservation strategy, when evaluating management decisions for sage grouse, to go an extra mile to consider the habitat requirements of the suite of species dependent on the sagebrush ecosystem. Since songbirds quickly respond to changes in the distribution and availability of vegetation features, the presence of these birds provides land managers with a rapid evaluation of management practices. Ultimately, a songbird’s early warning can help shape practices so that a measurable improvement in the integrity of sagebrush vegetation can be obtained for sage grouse and other birds.

This multi-species management strategy could be fine-tuned with better understanding of the habitat requirements of sagebrush birds at multiple scales. At Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory (RMBO), biometrician David Pavlacky has been analyzing data collected in the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation (IMBCR) program for just that purpose. His analysis examines two years of recent habitat data (2010-2011) from more than 1,600 survey locations across public and private lands in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and North and South Dakota. Regional coverage of the Great Basin in Nevada will be provided via collaboration with Great Basin Bird Observatory. By cross-referencing habitat data with species distributions at a large scale, the study will try to predict bird habitat relationships at a smaller scale. Thanks to a Conservation Innovation Grant received from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, RMBO plans to develop a Decision Support Tool (DST) to assist resource professionals, technical service providers, land managers, and private landowners in managing sagebrush ecosystems.  This tool will use the species distribution maps to prioritize conservation actions on the landscape and the bird-habitat relationships to evaluate the effectiveness of the conservation practices.  Because most sage-steppe landscapes are working rangelands, there is an obvious need to balance management strategies for numerous stakeholders. The proposed DST will address multiple objectives in a structured decision-making process to ensure the best conservation outcome for minimum cost. The tool will help also prioritize conservation actions and evaluate the effectiveness of conservation practices.  For example, the DST will examine the tradeoffs between certain management actions and:

  1. bird occurrence (species richness)
  2. livestock production (e.g., animal unit months), and
  3. cost (e.g., fence construction, conifer removal).

RMBO Pocket Guide to Sagebrush BirdsUltimately, land managers will be able to select the most appropriate management actions and know where on the landscape to apply them. This proactive approach may help prevent future Endangered Species Act listings of species of conservation concern.  To help communicate findings, several RMBO-led training sessions will be held for stakeholders. These trainings – funded by a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development grant – will help raise awareness of how important sagebrush property is to this special suite of birds and how to use the DST to incorporate bird conservation into land management decisions that not only work for the birds, but for ranchers and their cattle. Additionally, RMBO will develop a guide, “Incorporating Bird Conservation into Sagebrush Management,” and use the existing “Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds” to spread further awareness. Stay tuned for more from RMBO as they continue to develop a proactive, multi-species approach to conservation that will complement and enhance sage grouse habitat conservation and help ranchers.  Contact laura.quattrini@rmbo.org to obtain a pocket guide.



Also in the Winter, 2013 issue of Conservation Roundup: