Greater sage-grouse (GRSG) is a North American bird species that nests exclusively in sagebrush habitat. In the last century, natural populations of this species have significantly declined largely due to human influenced habitat loss and fragmentation. This has prompted multiple petitions to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to list GRSG under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which would require mandatory restrictions on critical sagebrush habitat. This means that land managers of sagebrush areas would face land use restrictions for natural resource extraction and development, the bulk of the economy in Wyoming.
Wyoming is a stronghold for GRSG, with the most birds, the most leks (male mating display grounds), and the largest contiguous sagebrush habitat in North America. Since GRSG declines have led to its possible endangered listing, Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal launched an effort in 2007 to develop stronger policies for GRSG that would protect the species and its habitat while also sustaining the state’s economy. A public forum followed, including representatives from state and federal agencies, non-governmental organizations, and industries, and in 2008 a conservation policy called the Greater Sage-Grouse Core Area Protection Strategy was developed to maintain and restore suitable habitat and active breeding GRSG pairs. The plan aims to protect at least 67% of male GRSG attending leks, and is focused on directing development outside of Core Areas by setting strict conservation measures inside Core Areas. By protecting sagebrush habitat and allowing development and mining in Non-Core Areas, Wyoming can continue to expand its natural resource economy and play a critical role in GRSG conservation.
In 2010, the USFWS concluded that GRSG were warranted protection but left them off the ESA list because threats were moderate and did not occur equally across their range. The status of GRSG was reevaluated in 2015 and the USFWS determined that GRSG did not warrant protection, claiming that the Core Area Strategy was sound framework for a policy by which to conserve GRSG in WY. However, recent monitoring of GRSG has shown that populations are still in decline in some Core Areas and in populations across their range. Our guest this week, Claire Revekant, a second year Master’s student in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Science, is trying to understand if avian and mammalian predator abundance differs between Core and Non-Core Areas.
Working under Dr. Jonathan Dinkins, Claire estimates associations between human influence areas and habitat variables on the abundance of predatory birds and occupancy of mammalian predators. For example, raptors and corvids have been documented to perch and nest on fences and other human structures, and roads have been found to be used as travel paths for mammalian predators. Claire’s hypothesis is that predatory animals will be higher in Non-Core Areas where human-influenced environments serves as areas of food subsidies. Identifying areas of predator abundance and relating those areas to human features and habitat variables may help policy makers prioritize plans to mitigate human influence and protect sagebrush habitat.
While her research is focused on predators of GRSG, Claire’s work for GRSG conservation contributes to the conservation of other sagebrush-obligate species (species that relay on sagebrush for all or some parts of their life cycle). By protecting the ecosystem for one “umbrella” species, other species may also benefit. Throughout her career as a wildlife biologist, Claire has been involved with numerous projects where she has handled and monitored several species. From learning to band raptors as a child to monitoring seabird productivity as an intern at the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, Claire has developed a passion for research. She told us that she can’t remember a time when she had a different dream job.