Severson J.P., C.A. Hagen, J.D. Maestas, D.E. Naugle, J.T. Forbes and K.P. Reese. 2017. Better living through conifer removal: A demographic analysis of sage–grouse vital rates. PloS One 12:e0174347.
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) obligate wildlife species such as the imperiled greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) face numerous threats including altered ecosystem processes that have led to conifer expansion into shrub-steppe. Conifer removal is accelerating despite a lack of empirical evidence on grouse population response. Using a before-after-control-impact design at the landscape scale, we evaluated effects of conifer removal on two important demographic parameters, annual survival of females and nest survival, by monitoring 219 female sage-grouse and 225 nests in the northern Great Basin from 2010 to 2014. Estimates from the best treatment models showed positive trends in the treatment area relative to the control area resulting in an increase of 6.6% annual female survival and 18.8% nest survival relative to the control area by 2014. Using stochastic simulations of our estimates and published demographics, we estimated a 25% increase in the population growth rate in the treatment area relative to the control area. This is the first study to link sage-grouse demographics with conifer removal and supports recommendations to actively manage conifer expansion for sage-grouse conservation. Sage-grouse have become a primary catalyst for conservation funding to address conifer expansion in the West, and these findings have important implications for other ecosystem services being generated on the wings of species conservation.