Grassland Vulnerability

Remote sensing of microclimates and grassland birds

The effects of habitat microclimates on wildlife, and their potential application to management, remain little explored. However, grasslands may be more vulnerable to climate extremes because of the open nature of these ecosystems, therefore management of microclimates could present an opportunity to increase the resilience of grassland dependent species to climate change, or extreme climate events.

Grasslands are amazing and diverse ecosystems that provide a multitude of important ecosystem services, as well as critical habitat for pollinators and declining grassland birds. Unfortunately, grassland are also among the most threatened ecosystems on earth, making successful management of remaining grassland habitat of critical importance. Grassland birds are good indicator species for the health of grassland systems because they are relatively easy to observe and study, and they respond quickly to changes on the landscape. Grassland birds are also rapidly declining, making them species of management interest to many management agencies.

Our USDA funded research project will attempt to quantify the effects of microclimates on grassland songbird demographic rates. Specifically, we will try to determine if certain microclimates are more beneficial for grassland bird species than others, and if larger habitat patches contain a greater diversity of microclimates. To do this, we will employ Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS, or drones) to systematically map the thermal landscape of grasslands in Wisconsin using remotely sensed thermal imagery. Drone collected imagery is a relatively new data source, but increasingly researchers are pushing the limits of this technology to answer landscape-scale ecological questions in novel ways. Ultimately, we hope to overlay this imagery with our grassland bird demographic data to answer applied management questions for grassland birds in Wisconsin. Funding is provided for by USDA Hatch Program.

Estimating grassland bird populations to inform landscape-level conservation

Grassland birds are having significant population declines primarily due to the loss of suitable grassland habitat. Effective conservation of grassland birds requires appropriate landscape management and accurate population estimates. However, the Midwestern States are not well sampled by Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) routes and restoring and protecting grassland habitat in the Midwest is difficult because most of the existing habitat is on private land.

To better inform conservation action of grassland birds, the Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative (WBCI) designated Grassland Bird Conservation Areas (GBCA) in focal grassland landscapes. These focal landscapes have higher amounts of grasslands and lower amounts of hostile habitat with the potential for multiple GBCAs. While the BBS data is insufficient to produce unbiased population estimates for the Midwest, Wisconsin’s 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas is a statewide volunteer-driven survey that includes additional point-count data on species abundance and detection.

Together with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we are using the Wisconsin’s BBA data to build species-specific models that estimate abundance for 20 focal species. These models provide estimates of how species abundance varies with land use and climate. This project aims to enhance our understanding of grassland bird vulnerability to land use and climate changes, provide local, statewide and regional estimates of grassland bird populations and evaluate the importance of focal grassland landscapes to the conservation of grassland birds. Funding is provided for by US FWS and Joint Ventures.

Grassland and Grassland Bird Conservation in the Age of Climate Change

Climate change is a global threat to wildlife and ecosystems, and grasslands currently face some of the most rapid and drastic threats from rising temperatures, increasing drought frequency, and severe storms. Concurrently, grassland birds have suffered the largest declines of any other group of birds due to habitat loss and degradation, and thus may be particularly vulnerable to climate change. This project is focused on understanding the current and future impacts of climate change on grasslands and grassland birds, document strategies to adapt management in the face of climate change, and identify key research needs to determine impacts and best practices.

To meet these goals, we are collaborating with Chris Ribic (USGS) and Neal Neimuth (FWS) to organize a steering committee comprised of scientists, land managers, and conservation professionals working in the Central Flyway of North America (which includes the Great Plains). Members of the committee will share their expertise through an internet-based survey, individual meetings, and a regional meeting to be held in 2020. To complement the guidance from the committee, we will conduct an extensive literature review, using both qualitative and quantitative methods to document climate change impacts and adaptation strategies. In 2021, we will publish a “State of Science” report summarizing critical projections, trends, gaps, and recommendations. Moreover, we will produce accessible extension documents intended for land managers, to ensure that the value of our work reaches all the people most likely to act on it. Funding is provided for by National Climate Adaptation Science Center.