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Sagebrush Birds IV


January 2017 - September 2018


Sagebrush habitats have been extensively converted, fragmented, and altered due to a wide range of human activities1,2. Less than half of the original extent of sagebrush steppe in North America remains, and only about one percent remains in a pristine state. As the personnel involved with the WAFWA Sagebrush Science Initiative are well aware, this has generated concern for the conservation and management of sagebrush-associated wildlife1. Considerable resources have been allocated towards greater sage-grouse research and conservation, however, fewer resources have been available for the study and management of non-game wildlife such as songbirds.

Simultaneously, climatic regimes are changing3, which is especially concerning for wildlife that inhabit arid environments such as the sagebrush steppe4. Indeed, birds inhabiting North American aridlands have displayed some of the most dramatic declines of any group during recent years5. Climate change, especially in combination with other disturbances such as energy development, has the potential to exacerbate wildlife population declines6. Changing climatic regimes, moreover, will not be geographically restricted to local areas of high impact such as in energy development scenarios, but rather will likely compose a wide-ranging, superimposed stressor7.

Climatic conditions can influence nesting birds via numerous pathways such as indirectly through food availability, or more directly via physiological stress. Parents that are physiologically stressed cannot lay as many eggs or care for offspring to the same extent8. Extreme temperatures and humidity can also affect egg viability and rates of hatching9. Biologists and managers, however, do not yet have the requisite information with which to assess how changing weather patterns such as increased temperatures and drought will influence sagebrush songbirds, and whether particular areas or microhabitats will be more or less buffered from the effects of climate. Parent birds may be able to compensate for potentially stressful conditions via the selection of nest sites with favorable microclimates, albeit to a largely unknown extent10. Of critical importance is therefore to assess the effects of climatic variability on reproductive output across a variety of sites and microhabitats. Such information can then be dovetailed with models of future climatic scenarios to better understand the aggregate effects of changing climate on bird populations7. These evaluations will be critical for developing useful and accurate Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments and local and landscape habitat prioritization efforts for sagebrush birds.6

Previous research by the PI and graduate students on sagebrush songbirds since 2002 at four different study areas (Table 2) anecdotally suggested lower reproductive investment and output during drier, hotter breeding seasons, as assayed by smaller clutch sizes and nestlings, longer inter-nest intervals, and fewer re-nesting attempts (which all contribute to seasonal fecundity). Such responses have the potential to scale up and influence population growth. To our knowledge, sagebrush songbird vital rates, however, have not yet been explicitly analyzed with respect to climatic variables. Understanding of which aspects of climate (e.g., temperature versus precipitation) may influence avian reproduction more strongly, which components of reproduction are affected, the spatial scale(s) at which these effects occur, and the extent to which habitat can buffer nesting birds against climatic stressors is lacking.


Current Staff

Federal Staff: 3

Masters Students: 17

Phd Students: 4

Post Docs: 3

University Staff: 4

5 Year Summary

Students graduated: 19

Scientific Publications: 48

Presentations: 96



Funding Agencies

  • Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies


Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit Cooperators

  1. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  2. U.S. Geological Survey
  3. University of Wyoming
  4. Wildlife Management Institute
  5. Wyoming Game and Fish Department