Range-wide Connectivity of Greater Sage-Grouse Populations
A male greater sage grouse
The range-wide distribution of greater sage-grouse mainly consists of a few large core populations surrounded by numerous small populations. The viability of many of these small populations may be sustained by dispersing individuals from neighboring populations. Development that causes habitat loss or creates barriers to dispersal between core areas has the potential to restrict movements important to maintain genetic diversity, augment small populations, or recolonize extirpated populations. State and federal agencies are currently focusing management actions for greater sage-grouse in core areas containing the highest densities of breeding birds. The core-area approach was developed to focus limited resources in areas that will have the greatest potential to benefit the largest proportion of sage-grouse. However, the concept of focusing sage-grouse conservation in these core areas could have unintended consequences by fragmenting sagebrush habitat and increasing isolation of individual sage-grouse populations, which in turn can put genetic viability and population persistence at risk.
Habitat and population fragmentation were two of the top factors contributing to the recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision that listing greater sage-grouse was warranted but precluded. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service (through its Sage-Grouse Initiative), University of Montana, and USGS have begun a collaborative effort to examine gene flow and connectivity among greater sage-grouse populations range-wide. More than 5,000 currently mapped breeding locations throughout their range (11 states and 2 Canadian provinces) are visited each year for population monitoring, providing the opportunity to collect feather samples for use in this study. Researchers will collect fine-scale genetic data from these feathers and combine these data with spatial analyses of landscape components such as habitat, elevation, roads, and energy development.
Study results will provide information on levels of population connectivity as well as characteristics of barriers to dispersal and genetic exchange, including geographic distance, topographic features, and human activities and land uses. Ultimately, the spatial and temporal dynamics of colonization derived from the study—based on rate of genetic exchange and barriers to dispersal—can inform estimates of population viability relative to population isolation and risk of extirpation. Managers will be able to apply this new information towards conservation efforts in areas that will most benefit genetic exchange among greater sage-grouse populations, thereby supporting species persistence.
Western Riparian Ecosystems: Global Change
Shifts in river flows are a central impact of climate change. These shifts affect water supply and flood hazards and alter the abundance of many native and invasive species. The effects of human-induced climate change on river flow cannot be understood, however, unless these effects can be distinguished from those of natural climate variation and water management. FORT researchers are studying tree rings of riparian cottonwoods in the Great Plains to reconstruct past environmental variation and to predict effects of future climate change. For example, along the Little Missouri River in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota, we are using tree rings to reconstruct the last 300 years of flow and climate variation and to predict the potential effects of climate change on future tree growth and establishment.
Avian Conservation in the Prairie Pothole Region, Northern Great Plains: Understanding the Links between Climate, Ecosystem Processes, Wetland Management, and Bird Communities
Wetland ecosystems function as important migratory and breeding bird habitats and add significantly to local and regional biodiversity. These ecosystems are increasingly threatened by climate change and the potential synergistic effects of increasing demand for water and invasion by exotic species. Scientists in USGS biology, water, and geology are examining the effects of climate and land-use change on bird populations and their wetland habitats in the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of North America. Our team is developing a set of products that includes (1) a synthesis of current knowledge on the interrelationships of climate, wetlands condition, and bird communities; and (2) data on historical and future projections of climate formatted for use in standard mapping software. We are also developing models to (1) forecast effects and biological outcomes of climate change on water quality and quantity on wetlands and riverine ecosystems of the PPR; (2) elucidate relationships between climate, streamflow, water management, and wetland plants; and (3) understand and forecast bird responses to changing habitat conditions and timing of resource availability. The outcomes of this research will inform and assist managers and conservation professionals tasked with conserving populations of wetland-dependent birds.
Web Tool Development for Central Federal Lands Highway Division
A Scenic Byway in Colorado
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Central Federal Lands Highways Division (CFLHD) administers the survey, design, and construction of forest roads, parkways and park roads, Indian reservation roads, defense access roads, and other Federal land roads. The CFLHD is working with the FORT Web Applications Team to build a way for federal partner agencies (BLM, FWS, NPS, USFS) to interact with the FLH in-house data management systems. The analysis and GIS support are needed to support FLH delivery of transportation plans at the national, regional and unit levels, further the development and integration of asset management data in transportation decision making, and support other transportation efforts such as the Scenic Byways Programs at the National, State, and Agency level. The focus is national, and the target audience consists of any agency staff who work in transportation planning at a land management unit (national wildlife refuge, national park, or national forest).
FORT and USGS provide analytical and technical services to develop Web Applications to integrate the transportation geodatabase and various agency inputs on road conditions, access, and priority. These data are contextualized with:
Transportation Impacts on Resources
Transportation Impacts on the Visitor Experience
Baseline Condition Analysis for Fish and Wildlife
Regional Network Analysis and Correlation with Scenic Byways
The FORT team has developed the Multi-modal Transportation Planning Application (MTPA), which allows users to visualize the various attributes of road segments on federal lands and to evaluate the real-time status of all road segments inside, and connecting to, their land management unit.
Behavioral Ecology of Wild Horses Treated with GnRH
Scientific research aimed at addressing the problem of population control for protected species has been devoted to developing wildlife antifertility agents that are safe, practical, and effective. FORT scientists' primary focus has been investigation of the immunocontraceptive Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) for limiting fecundity of feral horses on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The National Park Service (NPS) also manages feral horses on public lands, and like the BLM, faces the challenge of maintaining populations of a fecund protected species within resource limits. In recent years, a promising new fertility control agent has been developed that may overcome many of the shortcomings of current technology and involves immunization against gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH). Scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Wildlife Services, National Wildlife Research Center ( have recently conjugated synthetic GnRH peptides to a highly immunogenic carrier protein that, when combined with a potent adjuvant, stimulates the host’s immune system to produce antibodies that bind to endogenous GnRH. As anti-GnRH antibodies decline over time, concentrations of available endogenous GnRH increase and treated animals usually regain fertility.
Although not thoroughly evaluated, this immunocontraceptive vaccine, known by the trade name as GonaCon, has been shown to provide multiple years of infertility in several wild ungulate species including horses, bison (Bison bison), elk (Cervus elaphus), and white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus). While initial results are promising, many unanswered questions must be addressed before this potential contraceptive agent can be considered an acceptable method of fertility control in feral horses. To this end, managers at Theodore Roosevelt National Park (THRO), North Dakota, in cooperation with NPS and Colorado State University scientists, initiated a field study by inoculating 28 female horses with GonaConTM and 28 control females with saline in the fall of 2009. Their intent is to monitor these horses for general health, pregnancy, and body condition through 2011. One critical component identified by the BLM and expert committees (convened in 2001), and subsequently by NPS, in evaluating a fertility control agent for large-scale use is the potential influence it may have on the behavioral ecology of the species. FORT scientists have developed the quantitative tools for evaluating this topic and are investigating the influence of GnRH contraception on behavior of feral horses in THRO in concert with the larger efficacy study.
Grassland Ecology and Conservation
A young ferret peaks out of his burrow. Photo by Dean Biggins, USGS.
Grasslands are arguably one of the most anthropogenically stressed ecosystems of the western United States. The highly endangered black-footed ferret and prairie dogs epitomize grassland mammals of high conservation concern. The Utah prairie dog is a federally listed species, while black-tailed prairie dogs, white-tailed prairie dogs, and Gunnison's prairie dogs all have received attention in the form of listing proposals. Research conducted within this project will focus on these imperiled prairie dog communities and their vertebrate and invertebrate associates, but will not necessarily be limited to those communities. Studies will be driven by the need to better understand ecological relationships among grassland animals, interactions of these animals with their environments, and anthropogenic influences affecting these systems. There will be a continuing emphasis on research with conservation applications.
FORT personnel involved in the Grasslands Ecology and Conservation Project maintain close contact with the Black-footed Ferret and Utah Prairie Dog Recovery Implementation Teams, are members of various subcommittees of those groups, and are involved in various other groups working on conservation of prairie dogs and other grassland species.
Climate Change as a Challenge to Bird Conservation in Arid and Semi-arid Regions of North America
Tens of millions of migratory birds are dependent on wetland and riparian stopovers in arid and semiarid regions of North America during migration. Under current conditions, these habitats are declining in quantity and quality. Global climate change would superimpose even greater stress to these ecosystems, as indicated by global climate model predictions of higher temperatures and less precipitation in the southwestern U.S. Climate changes predicted for these regions thus may alter the spacing and quality of these critical wetland and riparian stopover habitats and thereby influence the survival and reproduction of migratory birds. This study investigates how these changes would influence the survival and reproduction of migratory birds. The research addresses specific questions that include (1) How will climate change alter the spacing and quality of critical wetland stopover habitats? (2) What are the long-term demographic consequences of climate change on sandpipers? (3) What are the sensitivities of migrating songbirds to loss of riparian forests due to global change and water-use patterns? and (4) What is the relative sensitivity to climate change of guilds of wetland birds? To answer these questions, FORT scientists will evaluate current and new global climate model predictions of temperature, precipitation, and storm intensity; analyze existing data sets; and draw heavily from the published scientific literature and climate, hydrology, and population models. Results of this study will assist wildlife managers within the Department of the Interior and other resource management agencies that are concerned with protection of migratory species and habitats critical for migration and breeding success.
Diatoms: Taxonomic and Ecological Tools for Assessment
Diatoms are important indicator organisms because they are sensitive to natural and human impacts, and monitoring their condition provides information about ecosystem health.
Diatoms are algae that reflect the biotic condition of streams, lakes and estuaries.
Several agencies (federal, state, local) and academic institutions have requested technical support and professional services to assess the ecological condition of streams and to provide transfer of technology on biological methods and interpretation based on taxonomic consistency. This can be done best by studying the diatoms in the water.
Diatoms, a type of single-celled algae, are robust indicators for monitoring and assessing the health of stream and lake ecosystems. The goal of this task is to use diatoms as indicators of condition, both modern and historical (through paleolimnology), to determine biotic response to environmental change. Determining the distribution of species and their environmental tolerances and optima (maximum and minimum tolerance of any given environmental variable) is of primary interest in monitoring and assessment. In particular, diatoms are very responsive to changes in nutrient condition (nitrogen, phosphorus), sediment loading, and degradation of aquatic habitats. In addition, the loss of diatom species diversity through human impacts to watersheds is of concern. In recent years, nuisance and invasive diatom species have been particular problems in western states.
Our approach is to use internally consistent and publicly accessible taxonomic and ecological data that supports Federal and State compliance with the Clean Water Act. In collaboration with several partners (USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program, EPA Office of Water, National Park Service, and the National Science Foundation) we are working to address a number of environmental problems using diatoms as tools.
Forecasting the Effects of Agricultural Practices on Prairie Wetlands: Implications for the Conservation of Migratory Shorebirds
The interplay of agriculturally driven environmental change and global warming modifies conditions and habitats for breeding, en-route, and wintering avian species across prairie and wetland landscapes. The remaining native prairies and wetlands in the mid-continental region of North America are highly vulnerable to agricultural policies and practices, land conversion, hydrology alteration, and water pollution. Understanding the relations among bird populations, agricultural practices, and changing climate is necessary for the protection of migratory bird species, and developing this understanding is a charge of many agencies within the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. This project will combine syntheses of the scientific literature, conceptual and mathematical modeling, and targeted field applications to build a broad framework for understanding the complex and far-reaching conservation challenges faced by managers of prairie wetlands and associated bird species in the coming decades. The conceptual and mathematical models will serve the conservation planning process in many ways, not only in clarifying the roles and relative importance of myriad factors, but also serving as a catalyst for further discussion and as a tool in educating managers, landowners, and scientists.
Socioeconomic Considerations for Public Lands Management and Planning
DOI and other public land managers require clear and objective guidance on the use of socioeconomic information in their land management and planning. Many agencies are required by law to develop a plan for each unit or complex of public land (e.g., refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plans (CCPs), BLM resource management plans). These plans generally must contain an analysis of social and economic conditions and evaluate social and economic results from likely management scenarios. Moreover, public land managers, planners, and policy makers are generally responsible for including social and economic assessments in the long-term plan in such a way that understanding these factors aids planning decisions and helps guide management actions. Providing a better understanding of these social and economic considerations in planning is the goal of this task. FORT social scientists have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuge System and the Bureau of Land Management to provide social and economic assessments in support of their long-term planning. Techniques used to make these assessments include surveys, focus groups, non-market valuation, stakeholder analysis, interviews, demographic analysis, and regional economic analysis.