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Keywords:

  • disturbance regimes;
  • grassland;
  • grazing;
  • plague;
  • prescribed fire;
  • rangeland management;
  • resource selection

Abstract

Much of the breeding range for the mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) occurs in shortgrass steppe and mixed-grass prairie in the western Great Plains of North America. Studies of mountain plovers in shortgrass steppe during the 1970s and 1990s were focused in Weld County, Colorado, which was considered a key breeding area for the species. These studies, however, did not include habitats influenced by black-tailed prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) or prescribed fire. The role of these 2 rangeland disturbance processes has increased substantially over the past 15 years. During 2008–2009, I used radial distance point count surveys to estimate mountain plover densities early in the nesting season in 4 habitats on public lands in Weld County, Colorado. All 4 habitats were grazed by cattle during the growing season at moderate stocking rates but had different additional disturbances consisting of 1) dormant-season prescribed burns, 2) active black-tailed prairie dog colonies, 3) black-tailed prairie dog colonies affected by epizootic plague in the past 1–2 years, and 4) rangeland with no recent history of fire or prairie dogs. Mountain plover densities were similar on active black-tailed prairie dog colonies (equation image = 6.8 birds/km2, 95% CI = 4.3–10.6) and prescribed burns (equation image = 5.6 birds/km2, 95% CI = 3.5–9.1). In contrast, no plovers were detected at randomly selected rangeland sites grazed by cattle but lacking recent disturbance by prairie dogs or fire, even though survey effort was highest for this rangeland habitat. Mountain plover densities were intermediate (2.0 birds/km2, 95% CI = 0.8–5.0) on sites where black-tailed prairie dogs had recently been extirpated by plague. These findings suggest that prescribed burns and active black-tailed prairie dog colonies may enhance breeding habitat for mountain plovers in shortgrass steppe and illustrate the potential for suppressed or altered disturbance processes to influence habitat availability for declining wildlife species. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.