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Clearcutting forestry and Eurasian boreal forest grouse: Long-term monitoring of sympatric capercaillie Tetrao urogallus and black grouse T. tetrix reveals unexpected effects on their population performances

Wegge, Per, Rolstad, Jørund
Forest ecology and management 2011 v.261 no.9 pp. 1520-1529
boreal forests, nests, predators, Accipiter gentilis, chicks, adults, correlation, Tetrao urogallus, Tetrix, males, Vaccinium myrtillus, forest ecosystems, grouse, females, harvesting, sympatry, winter, autumn, monitoring, climate change, predation, temperature, climatic factors, snowmelt, clearcutting, survival rate, rearing, spring, snow, forest management, forest plantations, habitats, Vulpes vulpes, Norway
Along the succession gradient of the boreal forest ecosystem, black grouse Tetrao tetrix inhabits the early and capercaillie Tetrao urogallus the latest stages. When converting old forest to clearcuts and plantations, commercial forestry has therefore been assumed to affect capercaillie negatively and to be favourable to black grouse. During a 30-year period (1979–2008) we monitored sympatric populations of the two species in a forest in southeast Norway based on annual spring and autumn censuses and radio-marked birds. During this period, the proportion of old, semi-natural forest was halved and clearcuts and young plantations increased accordingly. The grouse populations did not change as predicted. While the trend in August numbers of adult black grouse declined, males more than females, abundance of adult capercaillie remained unchanged. Number of males at leks showed similar patterns. Equally surprising, breeding success (number of chicks per female in August) of both species increased, thus indicating that the populations were regulated more by variation in adult survivorship than by recruitment of young birds. No correlations were found with changing climatic factors (precipitation and temperatures in winter and spring, snow depth and time of snow melt), except that year-to-year breeding success was positively correlated with minimum temperatures during 2 weeks posthatch. The results are explained by a combination of more flexible habitat selection than previously assumed and a changing predator regime: In the early period, nearly all capercaillie leks were located in old, semi-natural forest, but as plantations grew older (>30 years), new leks were established there. Similarly, while young capercaillie broods used old semi-natural forest almost exclusively when the study started, they frequently used middle-aged plantations, especially those with a ground cover of bilberry Vaccinium myrtillus, when these became common in later years. The increasing breeding success could largely be explained by more females rearing chicks successfully, presumably due to a marked decline in the main nest predator, the red fox Vulpes vulpes. A practice of thinning of the old, semi-natural forest some years prior to final harvesting probably facilitated predation of black grouse by goshawks Accipiter gentilis. Contrary to many beliefs, our results indicate that both capercaillie and black grouse are quite tolerant to changes in forest management regimes. In our study, numerical and functional responses of predators (mainly red fox and goshawk) apparently played a more important role in regulating grouse numbers than habitat factors per se.