Evaluating Habitat Suitability for Lesser Prairie Chick Reintroductions
Populations of lesser prairie-chickens in the southern Great Plains have declined in numbers and range since the mid-1980s and are currently being reconsidered for the Endangered Species List after being removed in response to a judicial decision in September 2015. Causes for the decline have been largely attributed to the loss of suitable habitat and connectivity of subpopulations through habitat fragmentation, loss, and degradation resulting from the conversion of grassland to cropland, energy development, periodic droughts and increased temperatures, and mismanagement of rangelands resulting in poor vegetative structure and tree encroachment. In response to growing concern over the decline in lesser prairie-chicken populations, extensive efforts were initiated by state, federal and private organizations to improve lesser prairie-chicken habitat by providing technical and financial assistance to private landowners to implement prescriptive management actions to increase the amount and quality of available habitat such as returning cropland back to grassland, removal of trees, and prescribed grazing and fire plans. Collaboration between agencies and private landowners has been an integral part to conserving grassland habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. However, recent efforts aimed at increasing the quantity and quality of lesser prairie-chickens habitat within the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion has resulted in very little change in population size suggesting a potential disconnect between current self-sustaining subpopulations and potentially suitable habitat for lesser prairie-chickens. As such, providing tools to rangeland managers to better prioritize habitat restoration and identify habitat suitable for lesser prairie-chickens at both the regional and ranch scale is crucial for the long-term persistence of the species. Our objectives are to 1) develop a highly conservative, spatially explicit habitat suitability model using ensemble approaches to combine predictions from multiple modeling techniques for areas currently occupied by lesser prairie-chickens in the mixed-grass prairie ecoregion, 2) identify areas of unoccupied habitat potentially suitable for lesser prairie-chicken reintroductions, 3) prioritize areas for habitat restoration based on proximity to existing subpopulations and potential for increased connectivity, and 4) identify and evaluate methods for quantifying fine-scale reproductive habitat for areas participating in habitat restoration programs.