Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative: Mechanistic Studies of Wildlife

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The Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative (WLCI) addresses effects of land-use and climate changes on Southwest Wyoming’s natural resources. In partnership with twelve Federal, State, and local natural resource agencies, and non-governmental organizations– FORT and ten other USGS centers are conducting dozens of integrated science projects to assess the status of Southwest Wyoming’s natural resources, the efficacy of habitat management projects, and effects of energy development on wildlife and socioeconomics. We’re also developing protocols for region-level monitoring long-term vegetation trends and modeling future resource conditions. Associated outreach highlights include developing online tools and data resources to support natural resource planning and management, and the efforts of FORT’s WLCI liaison, who spearheads WLCI Science Conferences and integrates science with WLCI management and conservation activities.

A pygmy rabbit sits in the dirt near its burrow.

A pygmy rabbit sits in the dirt near its burrow. Photo by Stephen Germaine, USGS.

Rapid energy development and other human-caused disturbances in southwestern Wyoming are challenging the abilities of natural resource managers to ensure persistence of the region’s vast diversity of wildlife. Prior studies of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and pygmy rabbits (Brachylagus idahoensis) indicate populations in Wyoming are declining, likely due to loss and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats, and both species were considered for listing through the Endangered Species Act within the past two years.

To help address population declines, we are developing spatial models to assess how sage-grouse respond to habitat changes associated with energy development and climate change across large landscapes; analyzing long-term population trends of sage-grouse across Wyoming to identify mechanisms (specifically those associated with climate and energy development) that may influence population fluctuations; and, developing predictive habitat-selection models. Less information exists for pygmy rabbit populations.

To help provide information about pygmy rabbits, we are validating two existing spatial models that predict occupancy across Wyoming with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database and the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy; developing a new model that predicts both site occupancy and vacancy using landscape-level habitat attributes, including factors associated with energy development, sagebrush vegetative structure, and updated climate information; beginning two studies to evaluate occupancy and survival rates on three major gas fields in western Wyoming; and relating occupancy data with LiDAR data that describes the structural characteristics of sagebrush over broad areas. Combined, the efforts of this work will provide the information and tools needed to help natural resource managers and policymakers develop effective wildlife management plans for sage-grouse, pygmy rabbits, and other species in southwestern Wyoming.