Interior Least Tern (Sternula antillarum) breeding distribution and ecology: implications for population-level studies and the evaluation of alternative management strategies on large, regulated rivers



Casey A. Lott, American Bird Conservancy, Boise, Idaho. Tel: 208-629-8705;


Interior Least Terns (Sternula antillarum) (ILT) are colonial, fish-eating birds that breed within active channels of large sand bed rivers of the Great Plains and in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Multipurpose dams, irrigation structures, and engineered navigation systems have been present on these rivers for many decades. Despite severe alteration of channels and flow regimes, regulation era floods have remained effective at maintaining bare sandbar nesting habitat on many river segments and ILT populations have been stable or expanding since they were listed as endangered in 1985. We used ILT breeding colony locations from 2002 to 2012 and dispersal information to identify 16 populations and 48 subpopulations. More than 90% of ILT and >83% of river km with suitable nesting habitat occur within the two largest populations. However, replicate populations remain throughout the entire historical, geophysical, and ecological range of ILT. Rapid colonization of anthropogenic habitats in areas that were not historically occupied suggests metapopulation dynamics. The highest likelihood of demographic connectivity among ILT populations occurs across the Southern Plains and the Lower Mississippi River, which may be demographically connected with Least Tern populations on the Gulf Coast. Paired ecological and bird population models are needed to test whether previously articulated threats limit ILT population growth and to determine if management intervention is necessary and where. Given current knowledge, the largest sources of model uncertainty will be: (1) uncertainty in relationships between high flow events and subsequent sandbar characteristics and (2) uncertainty regarding the frequency of dispersal among population subunits. We recommend research strategies to reduce these uncertainties.