NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife: Opportunity and Outcomes (hosted by TWS)

In recent years, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and its partners have been working with private landowners to restore and enhance habitats for important at-risk wildlife species through its Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) efforts. NRCS, through the wildlife component of the USDA-led Conservation Effects Assessment Project (CEAP) and similar efforts, is supporting outcome-based assessments to evaluate response of target and associated species. This symposium presents wildlife outcomes, approaches, and emerging findings from select WLFW outcome-based assessment efforts. This session will facilitate discussions of ongoing assessments, current and future research and management needs, and opportunities for implementing, modifying, and improving Working Lands for Wildlife and related Farm Bill conservation programs and practices to benefit wildlife and landowners.

8:00AM Cut a Tree, Grow a Grouse: Implications of Juniper Removal for Sage-Grouse Population Growth
  Andrew Olsen, John Severson, Jeremy Maestas, David Naugle, Kate Yates, Christian Hagen
Sagebrush-steppe (Artemisia spp.) is a globally imperiled ecosystem. In North America’s Great Basin, fire suppression is replacing sagebrush communities with expanding pinyon-juniper (Pinus spp.-Juniperus spp.) woodlands. The Greater Sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus; sage-grouse), a “sagebrush obligate” species, is widespread in the Great Basin and uses sagebrush during every phase of its lifecycle. Sage-grouse, which have experienced widespread population declines and range contraction, may serve as indicators of sagebrush ecosystem health. Using a long-term (2010–2017) telemetry data set (n = 417 females) and lek counts (n = 260), an integrated population model was developed in the Bayesian framework in a before-after-control-impact design to assess the population response of sage-grouse to conifer management. Population growth rates (λ) in a treatment area (Treatment) with conifer removal and a control area (Control) without conifer removal generally tracked each other through time. However, the difference in λ between study areas indicated a steady increase in Treatment relative to Control starting in 2013 (removals initiated in 2012), with differences of 0.122 (85% CI: -0.014–0.252) and 0.112 (85% CI: 0.004–0.217 in 2016 and 2017, respectively. Retrospective sensitivity analysis suggested that dynamics in λ were driven by increases in juvenile, adult, first nest, and yearling survival. Findings indicate that conifer removal is an effective management technique for increasing sage-grouse populations in landscapes affected by expansion.
8:20AM Conifer Management in Context: A Community-Based Evaluation of Conifer Removal for Sagebrush and Woodland Obligates
  Jason Tack, Jason Reinhardt, Kevin Doherty, Joseph Smith, Jeremy Maestas, Brady Allred, Patrick Donnelly, David Naugle
Expansion and encroachment of conifer woodlands into sagebrush steppe habitats threaten sagebrush-dependent wildlife including sage-grouse and migratory songbirds. Targeted removal of conifers among historically sagebrush-dominated landscapes has been an effective tool for restoring habitats for sagebrush-obligate wildlife, as well as providing improved ecosystem services including carbon capture and water storage. However, successes in large-scale conifer removal begets an investigation of potential impacts to species that rely on pinyon and juniper woodlands. Understanding patterns of abundance for both sagebrush-dependent wildlife and declining woodland obligates can help practitioners target conifer removal projects in areas anticipated to provide community-level benefits for wildlife. We used Breeding Bird Survey data from across the sagebrush ecosystem to develop habitat-based relative abundance maps for nine sagebrush and woodland-dependent species, including declining Brewer’s sparrow, sage thrasher, green-tailed towhee, and pinyon jay. We overlaid data from past conifer removal projects intended for sage-grouse management with predicted abundance for each species and found that cuts had largely targeted the highest predicted abundance for sagebrush-obligates, while avoiding important pinyon jay habitats. We made spatial layers available online such that practitioners can use an interactive web-based tool to help inform local decisions when targeting conifer removal projects. Lastly, we used a Strategic Conservation Planning Approach to prioritize conifer removal projects intended to best target sagebrush-dependent wildlife, while avoiding declining woodland obligates.
8:40AM Sage-Grouse: Micro-Habitat Specialist or Shrub-Steppe Generalist?
  Joseph Smith
Sage-grouse (Centrocercus spp.) are species of conservation concern driving rapidly evolving land management policy in the western United States. Management objectives for fine-scale vegetation characteristics such as height and cover of plant functional groups have been widely adopted based on relationships between these attributes and fitness proxies, most notably nest success, revealed by small-scale field studies. There remains substantial disagreement, however, regarding which fine-scale vegetation characteristics matter, how much, and in what contexts. Moreover, it is not known whether habitat-fitness relationships at small scales (i.e., among individual nests within a study area) also apply at the scale of management units, which are many orders of magnitude larger. We employ meta-analyses to test the importance of several commonly measured fine-scale vegetation characteristics to nest site selection and nest success across the geographic range of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Importantly, we use aggregate statistics to test these relationships at a grain size closely matching the scales at which management occurs. Our findings revealed strong, but context-dependent, effects of shrub characteristics and weak effects of herbaceous vegetation in nest site selection. None of the tested vegetation characteristics were related to variation in nest success among studies, suggesting habitat-fitness relationships have been inappropriately extrapolated across scales in developing habitat management objectives. Our findings reveal surprising flexibility in habitat use for a species often depicted as a finicky habitat specialist, and cast doubt on the value of precise management objectives for fine-scale habitat structure.
9:00AM Ground-Dwelling Arthropod Community Response to Livestock Grazing: Implications for Avian Conservation
  Hayes Goosey
Terrestrial arthropods are a vital element of rangeland ecosystems which transform primary production into resources for higher trophic levels. Many imperiled North American prairie birds use arthropods as a primary food source during spring and summer. Globally, livestock grazing is the most common use of rangelands and through herbivory can both directly and indirectly influence arthropod community structure. We investigated the impact of livestock management on arthropod communities and avian food activity-density in grazed and ungrazed sagebrush steppe habitats of central Montana. During 2012-­2015, sampling was conducted on lands enrolled in a rest-rotation grazing program and on idle lands that had not experienced livestock grazing in over a decade. Activity-density of bird-food arthropods was two-times greater in livestock managed pastures despite that the total arthropod activity-density was two-times greater on idle lands. Activity-density in idle pastures was mostly a result of a three-fold increase in detritivores and a two-fold increase in predators. The structure of the predator community, on idle lands, was simplified and characterized by a five-fold increase in Lycosid spiders. Livestock managed lands, in contrast, supported a greater diversity of ground-dwelling arthropods, many of which are beneficial for birds in these habitats if, in fact, diversity does enhance temporal stability in this necessary food resource. These results suggest that arthropod diversity may benefit from periodic disturbance and that birds, in general, may benefit from periodic rest or deferment in a livestock grazing program.
9:20AM The Rangeland Analysis Platform: New Technology Revolutionizes Rangeland Monitoring
  Brady Allred, Matthew Jones, David Naugle
The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) is a free, online tool that helps landowners and natural resource managers track vegetation through time and plan actions to improve America’s rangelands. Powered by Google Earth Engine, RAP merges machine learning and cloud-based computing with remote sensing and field data to provide the first-ever annual percent cover maps of rangeland vegetation. The RAP can be used to provide strategies to improve productivity of grazing lands, manage weeds, mitigate impacts of wildfire and drought, and benefit wildlife habitats. This new platform allows people to view trends in rangeland resources at an unprecedented blend of space (from the Great Plains to the Pacific Coast), time (1984 to present), and scale (at the ranch, watershed, or county level). Designed to be combined with local knowledge, the RAP ( helps users better understand vegetation change through time to aid in conservation planning, outcome evaluation, and efficiently respond to pressing challenges facing conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
09:40AM Break
1:10PM Motivating Large-Scale Resilience Management on Working Lands: Outcomes for Wildlife, Water, and Wildfire Prevention
  Caleb Roberts, Dirac Twidwell, Daniel Uden, Dillon Fogarty, Craig R. Allen
Wildlife conservation is increasingly turning to broad-scale planning horizons and the co-production of science, policy, and management to leverage resources and scale-up conservation investments. Large-scale resilience management is based on principles derived from hierarchy theory and prioritizes conservation investments that secure broad-scale patterns before implementing localized management actions. Motivating such efforts has proven extraordinarily challenging in the Great Plains, where woody plant encroachment is continuing to spread and detrimentally impact multiple rangeland resources. Here, we introduce pioneering efforts to bridge new metrics from spatial resilience theory with new technological and computational capabilities in rangeland monitoring. We demonstrate how these new spatial tools are capable of screening for vegetation transitions before symptoms are evident for wildlife, livestock, and other important ecosystem services in rangelands. We then provide examples where these new tools have motivated the scaling-up of private lands conservation in the Great Plains and discuss the initial outcomes to wildlife, livestock, water, and wildfire prevention.
1:30PM Hierarchical Ecological Benefits of the Conservation Reserve Program in the Southern Great Plains
  Daniel Sullins, David Haukos, Christian Hagen
In the Southern Great Plains, grassland-dependent wildlife have been largely confined to areas unsuitable for farming. The nonarable nature of remaining grasslands have long functioned as strongholds for several species including the lesser prairie-chicken (LEPC; Tympanuchus pallidicinctus). Fortunately, a habitat alternative has become established in northwestern Kansas and eastern Colorado over the last 30 years. In this region, conversion of cropland to USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) grassland appears beneficial for LEPCs. For CRP to benefit LEPCs, numerous hierarchical conditions must be achieved within the CRP grassland and surrounding landscape. Climate largely imposes a broad-scale constraint with average precipitation influencing grass structure. Predictive models of radiomarked female LEPCs (n = 280), indicated greater use of CRP in areas receiving 35–55 cm of average annual precipitation. Landscape composition also influenced use of CRP as its use increased with native grassland in the surrounding 4 km. Within these grassland-CRP mosaics LEPC nest and adult survival were comparable between individuals using predominantly CRP or native grassland. In contrast, nest densities and brood habitat use varied considerably between CRP and native grassland. Our results suggest that LEPC populations in this region need a mosaic of CRP, native grassland, and cropland. A spatially strategic enrollment could increase LEPC habitat by 498 km2 and habitat could be gained in more mesic regions through prescribed grazing, fire, or disking. Now and into the future, LEPCs need large grassland areas; however, former strongholds have sustained substantial declines in habitat quality. The only population to have increased since 1998 resides within the Short-Grass Prairie/CRP Mosaic Ecoregion due in part to the presence of CRP. Given projected population trajectories in the western portion of the species’ distribution, LEPCs will need a juxtaposition of CRP fields among large grassland dominated landscapes to enhance future probabilities of persistence.
1:50PM Farm Bill Programs for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Contribute to Umbrella Species Conservation of Grassland Birds
  David C. Pavlacky, Anne M. Bartuszevige, Rich Iovanna, Christian Hagen
Long-term population declines have elevated the recovery of the grassland avifauna to among the highest conservation priorities in North America. Because a large percentage of the southern Great Plains are privately owned, the recovery of grassland birds depends on strong partnerships between private landowners and resource professionals. Farm Bill conservation practices, such as Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI) prescribed grazing and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), are important for managing lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) populations. Although the practices are expected to benefit other grassland bird species, effectiveness monitoring is necessary to establish the linkage between umbrella and multi-species conservation. We designed a large-scale impact-reference study within the occupied range of the prairie-chicken using the Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions program for the Playa Lakes Joint Venture. Overall, the conservation practices showed proportionally larger contributions to population size relative to availability for the Cassin’s sparrow (Peucaea cassinii), grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) and eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna). The Cassin’s sparrow and eastern meadowlark responded primarily to LPCI prescribed grazing and introduced CRP, whereas the grasshopper sparrow responded primarily to native CRP. The conservation practices accounted for 17% of the Cassin’s sparrow population (N = 518,000; CI = 426,000, 630,000), 16% of the grasshopper sparrow population (N =1,625,000; CI = 1,339,000, 1,972,000) and 21% of the eastern meadowlark population (N = 244,000; CI = 168,000, 354,000). Although overall conservation showed proportionally lower contributions to population size relative to availability for the burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia) and dickcissel (Spiza americana), 7 of the 12 grassland obligates showed population responses in proportion to availability in the region. In conclusion, the Farm Bill conservation practices made meaningful contributions to regional populations of several declining grassland species. The outcomes may be useful for understanding the population consequences of enrollment and expiration of the voluntary conservation agreements over time.
2:10PM Landscape and Microhabitat Influences on Occupancy of Golden-Winged Warblers in Managed Habitats
  Jeffery Larkin, Darin McNeil, Amanda Rodewald, Cameron Fiss, Viviana Ruiz-Gutierrez
Habitat restoration is an important conservation strategy for species limited by habitat quantity or quality. Even when restoration programs are guided by scientifically-informed best management practices (BMPs), it is important to monitor outcomes to evaluate success and potentially refine conservation strategies. We assessed the response of a declining songbird, the Golden-winged Warbler, to BMP implementation across a large portion of its breeding range. We also assessed factors across multiple spatial scales (i.e., micro-habitat and local landscape) driving the species use of restored sites. From 2015-17, we conducted avian and vegetation surveys at 457 and 215 locations in the central Appalachian Mountains and western Great Lakes, respectively. We quantified Golden-winged Warbler response to habitat restoration using occupancy for the Appalachians and density for the Great Lakes. Golden-winged Warbler response to habitat restoration in both regions varied with latitude, longitude, elevation, percent mixed-forest, and site age. Response to management in the Appalachians varied considerably with some sub-regions hosting relatively high occupancy (e.g., >0.40), but restored habitat >24 km from existing populations were usually vacant. Response to habitat restoration in the Great Lakes varied along a gradient from northern Minnesota/Wisconsin to southwestern Minnesota, though the species was detected at nearly every point and most points hosted multiple singing males ( = 0.80 males/ha [95% CI: 0.71 – 0.88] or 2.50 males/ point). Restored habitat required several growing seasons (≥ 3) post-treatment to achieve maximum benefit to Golden-winged Warblers. Regardless of region, future habitat restoration efforts for this species should avoid landscapes with > 10-20% mixed forest, and efforts in the Appalachians should target areas within 24 km of known breeding populations. Our study provides early evidence that carefully-planned partnerships like Working Lands for Wildlife, and similar efforts on public lands, have the potential for success, even where a focal species may be rare.
2:30PM A Comparison of Full Season Productivity of Golden-Winged Warbler across Three Distinct Regions of the Species Breeding Distribution
  Darin McNeil
Ecological restoration is an important tool in offsetting habitat loss, but often such efforts do not rigorously evaluate whether conservation objectives are achieved. We identified drivers of restoration outcomes for an imperiled bird, the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera; GWWA), across a large portion of its breeding range. From 2015-18, we surveyed 595 points located in recently-restored successional habitats. Demographic contributions of restorations were examined by using new- and published data on the survival of 341 nests and 258 fledglings to estimate full-season productivity (hereafter, “productivity”). Occupancy and colonization of restored habitat patches were three- and eight times higher in the Great Lakes than Appalachian Mountains (respectively), a pattern that mirrored variation in abundance and coarse population trends. Likewise, local extinction rates were five times higher in the Appalachian Mountains. At local scales, productivity was high in Eastern Pennsylvania (> 3 independent juveniles/pair/year) but low in Central Pennsylvania (1 independent juvenile/pair/year) while both Western- and Central Minnesota hosted intermediate productivity (1-2 juveniles/pair/year). Local variation in productivity matched that of local occupancy in the Appalachians, while occupancy was high in the Great Lakes, despite intermediate productivity. These differences have profound implications for local population dynamics, as Golden-winged Warbler pairs possessed robust capacity to respond to habitat restoration in both regions, but this capacity was conditional upon local productivity where the species is rare. Given that colonization did not exceed extinction at the regional scale in the Appalachian Mountains (naïve occupancy showed a slight positive trend over time), restoration efforts in this region may be most beneficial when targeted only near population centers, rather than across an entire conservation region. Our findings suggest that, even when restoration efforts are focused on a single species and used comparable prescriptions, complex interactions among processes governing habitat selection, settlement, and productivity can yield variable restoration outcomes.
2:50PM Refreshment Break
3:20PM Factors Affecting Native Pollinator Diversity and Density in Regenerating Managed Forests
  Codey L Mathis, Darin McNeil, Monica Lee, Christina Grozinger, David King, Clint Otto, Katherine Urban-Mead, Jeffrey Larkin
There exists strong evidence that native pollinators (e.g., bees and butterflies) are in decline throughout the U.S. Very little research to date has investigated native pollinator communities in the prevailing cover type of the eastern United States, deciduous forests. The current and historical abundance of deciduous forest combined with its high floral diversity suggests it may harbor diverse pollinator communities. In 2018, we monitored native pollinators in 75 early-successional (<9 years post-harvest) forest stands in Central Pennsylvania. We analyzed lethal- and nonlethal pollinator abundance data as a function of floral abundance and vegetation structure data for each regenerating stand. We observed over 2,200 bees and butterflies, 161 floral species, and collected over 800 pollinator specimens. Our bee specimens (n=773) included 18 genera (62 species) with the most common genera being Lasioglossum, Ceratina, and Augochlorella. Pollinator abundance was positively associated with season-wide flower abundance within each site and negatively associated with non-flowering vegetation (e.g., saplings and ferns). Finally, we observed significantly fewer pollinators in stands > 6 years post-harvest, with our model predicting five times more bees in 1-year stands than in 9-year stands. These results suggested that regenerating forest promote abundant pollinator communities in the Appalachian Mountains, though bee abundance declines quickly as woody stems regenerate. Additional years of surveys will continue to provide insight into the use of silviculture for conserving native pollinators in Pennsylvania.
3:40PM Avian Communities Associated with Central Appalachian Forests Enrolled in NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife Partnership
  Cameron Fiss, Darin McNeil, Amanda Rodewald, Jonathan Cohen, Jeffery Larkin
Understanding how conservation programs that focus on single-species habitat implementation affect other species is important for conveying how such efforts contribute to community-scale conservation. We quantified avian communities in regenerating forests on private lands enrolled in the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Working lands For Wildlife (WLFW): Golden-winged Warbler Partnership and comparable habitat management on public lands. Specifically, we conducted 960 point counts and completed vegetation surveys at 480 locations (n=288 private, n=192 public) across MD/NJ/PA from 2015-2018. We detected 153 bird species with 134 occurring on private lands and 121 on public lands. Private lands managed under WLFW hosted slightly higher species diversity (H’: 2.41 ± 0.02) compared to nearby public lands undergoing similar management scenarios (H’: 2.32 ± 0.01). Of the 20 most common species detected on surveys, about half are experiencing long-term population declines. Additionally, the most common species detected represent a mix of guilds including both early successional breeding birds (e.g., Field Sparrow [Spizella pusilla], Eastern Towhee [Pipilo erythrophthalmus]) and mature forest breeding birds (e.g., Scarlet Tanager [Piranga olivacea], Ovenbird [Seiurus aurocapilla]). On private lands enrolled in WLFW, annual Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) naïve occupancy ranged from 6.6% to 11.7%. Further, Eastern Towhee occurred on 83.4% – 88.7% of sites, Field Sparrow occurred on 37.7% – 43.4% of sites, Scarlet Tanager occurred on 46.2% – 48.8% of sites, and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) occurred on 13.7% – 20.4% of sites. Our results not only indicate the importance of private lands forest management for Golden-winged Warbler, but also highlight the ability of single-species management on private lands to provide much needed habitat for the broader community of declining forest songbirds.
4:00PM Variations Among Working Landscapes Affect Conservation Outcomes for Gopher Tortoise in the Southeastern U.S.
  Thomas Prebyl
Open savanna-like ecosystems maintained by fire and other disturbances were historically the dominant upland land cover in the southeastern coastal plain of the United States. This landscape has become increasingly altered through fire exclusion, land conversion, and changes in forestry practices resulting in a current landscape comprised of highly variable forest stands that differ widely in terms of vegetation structure, species composition, and similarity to reference ecological communities. The loss of open woodlands and savannas has reduced populations of many wildlife species including the gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus), which is a keystone species and the focus of current conservation efforts. One of the challenges in restoring savanna-like habitats for gopher tortoise and other species is prediction of the effectiveness of conservation practices when applied to the variable landscape of the southeastern coastal plain. To better understand this system, we are conducting an evaluation of the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife partnership which has incentivized conservation practices on private lands throughout the coastal plain. In this study we model the relationship between site characteristics, conservation practices, vegetation response, and gopher tortoise populations. We surveyed the vegetation communities and gopher tortoise populations on 290 privately-owned forest stands in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida where conservation practices had been previously implemented. Initial results suggest that sites on xeric soils with undisturbed herbaceous communities may respond well to management and are likely to be occupied by tortoises. Ongoing statistical modeling will provide quantitative estimates of effect sizes and will test alternative hypotheses regarding habitat drivers of gopher tortoise density. We expect this study will contribute to the design and targeting of conservation efforts on private lands which are an essential component to the larger conservation effort for gopher tortoises and savanna-like ecosystems in the southeast.
4:20PM Assessing Stability of Gopher Tortoise Populations on Working Lands through Line-Transect Distance Sampling
  Heather Gaya, Bryan Nuse, Thomas Prebyl, Clinton Moore
The gopher tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) is a keystone species in the southeastern United States with declining populations. The tortoise is classified as threatened in southwestern Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana and is a candidate for listing in the remainder of the range. Most surveys of gopher tortoises use a standard line-transect distance sampling (LTDS) protocol to find tortoise burrows and estimate site-wide populations. Size scales with age into early adulthood; thus, managers rely on estimated size distributions to make inferences about the age structure of a population. However, juvenile populations are frequently underestimated due to size-related detectability, and estimated size distributions are skewed towards larger animals. Consequently, assessment of population stability from line-transect data is severely limited under currently used protocols. The goal of this project was to produce bias-adjusted size-demography estimates for gopher tortoise populations on properties enrolled in the Working Lands for Wildlife program. We also developed a simulation-based model that quantifies the probability that an estimated size distribution of tortoises reflects a declining population. Outcomes of this study will better inform managers making decisions about management and conservation practices throughout the gopher tortoise’s native range. Although we focus on gopher tortoise surveys, this method could be applied to any species surveyed with LTDS for which subsets of the population may be difficult to detect.
4:40PM State of Monarch Habitat in Midwestern Agricultural Conservation Lands
  Laura Lukens
The Eastern North American monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) population has declined by more than 80 percent during the last 20 years. A primary cause of this decline has been the loss of habitat throughout the breeding range, primarily in the upper Midwest. Urban development and changing agricultural practices have significantly reduced the amount of milkweed and nectar resources available on the landscape. It is estimated that 1.3 billion milkweed stems need to be replaced in order to restore and maintain a viable population of migratory monarchs. While we know that both milkweed and nectar plants need to be added to the landscape, there are gaps in current datasets. Knowing how the distribution and quality of habitat varies across land use sectors, and how monarchs use those habitats will better inform and improve our conservation efforts. To help address this data gap, we conducted a study to understand the current state of monarch habitat in Midwestern agricultural conservation lands, and to assess the outcomes of NRCS conservation activities designed to benefit monarch butterflies and pollinators. We conducted retrospective effectiveness monitoring on past restoration projects using Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program protocols. 39 grassland sites enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program were monitored for milkweed density and diversity, forb species richness and frequency, and the density of monarch eggs and larvae. Sites were located in Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, and were monitored during 2016-2017. We gathered seeding and management information for each site in order to determine how these variables influence the establishment of species over time and monarch use of those habitats. Study results can be used to help inform conservation strategies on and near agricultural land, and broader monarch conservation efforts.

Organizers: Charles A. Rewa, Danielle Flynn, Melissa Martin

Location: Reno-Sparks CC Date: October 3, 2019 Time: 8:00 am - 5:00 pm