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Anthropogenic and Natural Disturbance Differentially Affect Sagebrush Bird Habitat Use

Courtney J. Duchardt, David J. Augustine, Jeffrey L. Beck
journal of wildlife management 2020 v.84 no.7 pp. 1361-1372
Artemisia tridentata, Centrocercus urophasianus, Cynomys ludovicianus, Oreoscoptes montanus, Spizella breweri, anthropogenic activities, data collection, ecosystems, habitat preferences, habitats, landscapes, plague, private lands, steppes, wildlife management, Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming
North American sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)‐obligate birds are experiencing steep population declines due in part to increased disturbance, mainly human‐caused, across their range. At the eastern edge of the sagebrush steppe, this issue may potentially be exacerbated because of natural disturbance by black‐tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus). Our goal was to compare local and landscape models of habitat use by greater sage‐grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), Brewer's sparrow (Spizella breweri), and sage thrasher (Oreoscoptes montanus) with models including effects of natural (i.e., prairie dog) and anthropogenic disturbance. We used a combination of field data collection, and state and national datasets for the Thunder Basin National Grassland, eastern Wyoming, USA, to understand the factors that influence lek attendance by sage‐grouse and habitat use by 2 passerines in this system. For all 3 species, models including big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) cover at local and landscape scales were the most competitive among univariate models, supporting the paradigm that sagebrush is key for these species. Models including anthropogenic disturbance (well density, road density) explained more variation than models of prairie dog disturbance alone for 2 of the 3 species, but long‐term disturbance by prairie dogs did reduce abundance of Brewer's sparrows. Although long‐term prairie dog disturbance has the potential to reduce sagebrush cover for sagebrush‐obligate birds, such events are likely rare because outbreaks of plague (Yersina pestis) and lethal control on borders with private land reduce prairie dog disturbance. Conversely, anthropogenic disturbance is slated to increase in this system, suggesting potentially accelerated declines for sagebrush birds into the future. © 2020 The Wildlife Society.