Ecology researchers in Nebraska have centered studies on prairie grouse dating back to the 1950s, and while it may not be something on everyone’s radar, there is more than one species of the bird, one being sharp-tailed grouse and the other being greater prairie-chicken.
On Sept. 7 at 3 p.m., the Center for Grassland Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln continued its Fall Seminar Series online via Zoom with an installment called “Keeping Prairie Grouse on the Prairie.” The event featured Danielle Berger, a doctoral student of ecology at Utah State University.
The purpose of the lecture series is to help fulfill the center’s mission to “emphasize the role of grasslands as a natural resource and enhance the efficiency, profitability and sustainability of grasslands and turfs,” according to its website. This year’s lectures focus on prairie restoration, precision agriculture and drought and invasive species management.
According to Walter Schacht, interim director of the CGS, the Fall Seminar Series has been a staple of the center for many years as it aims to bring together UNL community members curious about grassland ecology and management.
“The Center for Grassland Studies was created in 1994 to house integrated grassland programming at IANR/UNL and serve as the steward of Nebraska’s grassland heritage,” Schacht said.
Schacht invited Berger to present to continue the reporting done by the CGS on prairie grouse since its founding.
“Prairie grouse — sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chicken — are seen as an iconic bird of Nebraska grasslands, especially of the Sandhills,” Schacht said. “As iconic birds and indicators of ecosystem health of the Sandhills grasslands, we recognized the importance of Dani’s research because it focused on the drivers of prairie grouse abundance since the 1950s.”
Berger, a Wisconsin native, also has a bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, as well as a master’s degree from UNL where her research was focused on the historical ecology of prairie grouse in the Sandhills.
Schacht emphasized the importance of Berger’s lecture as prairie grouse are considered to be important facets in the understanding of Nebraska’s ecosystem.
“Prairie grouse are icons of Sandhills grasslands and indicators of the health/quality of the Sandhills ecosystem,” Schacht said.
A focus of Berger’s discussion was the patterns and processes of prairie grouse in the Sandhills. Berger utilized data and research from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and noted the importance of the commission’s work being accurate.
She said that with state agencies having restricted budgets and manpower, the NGPC does surveys in a prompt manner and doesn’t have the luxury to complete a survey in an area more than once.
She also explained the in-depth processes of how prairie grouse are counted each spring, emphasizing the importance of monitoring data on prairie grouse to help with the future management of the birds.
“My goal is to provide a modeling frame that allows resource managers to use monitoring data to understand not only what their population is doing but why,” Berger said.
Over time, the prairie chicken population in the Sandhills has grown, while the sharp-tailed grouse population has somewhat dropped off.
“We often treat them as a single species … but actually they have very different resource needs,” Berger said.
This is attributed to the locations the two species end up being found in, likely caused by a mediating environmental factor such as climate, predation or crop counts.
“We never observe the same high count of these species in the same location in the same point in time,” Berger said. “Greater prairie chickens in the Sandhills they’re abundant along that eastern and southern edge … and we aren’t seeing a lot of sharp-tails in that same area. They are more abundant in the west and northern part of the Sandhills.”
Berger continued to go over the environmental trends traced in other populations such as predation, land-use and climate as they relate to the survival of prairie grouse populations.
She found that while predation pressure had decreased, grazing pressure increased over time. Additionally, she mentioned that crop counts increased in some areas while decreasing in others and that weather patterns stayed relatively consistent. This indicates that the populations were impacted more by different environmental factors other than climate.
Berger observed that the population growth rates of each prairie grouse species are impacted more by different environmental variables.
“For sharp-tail grouse, the top model included density dependence and cropland area, but in the second couple models I also had effects of drought and grazing that were significant,” Berger said. “For prairie chickens, the top model included density dependence and drought, but I also had grazing.”
A full recording of the event can be viewed on the center’s website. The next lecture in the CGS Fall Seminar Series will be “Hidden Prairie: A Year Photographing a Single Square Meter of Prairie,” hosted by Chris Hezler on Monday, Sept. 14 at 3 p.m. via Zoom.