Jason D. Tack, Joseph T. Smith, Kevin E. Doherty, Patrick J. Donnelly, Jeremy D. Maestas, Brady W. Allred, Jason Reinhardt, Scott L. Morford, David E. Naugle.
Tree expansion among historic grassland and shrubland systems is a global phenomenon, which results in dramatic influences on ecosystem processes and wildlife populations. In the western US, pinyon-juniper woodlands have expanded by as much as six-fold among sagebrush steppe landscapes since the late nineteenth century, with demonstrated negative impacts to the behavior, demography, and population dynamics of species that rely on intact sagebrush rangelands. Notably, greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) are unable to tolerate even low conifer cover, which can result in population declines and local extirpation. Removing expanding conifer cover has been demonstrated to increase sage grouse population growth rates and sagebrush-obligate songbird abundance. However, advances in restoring sagebrush habitats have been met with concern about unintended impacts to species that rely on conifer woodlands, notably the pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) whose population declines are distinctive among birds breeding in pinyon-juniper woodlands. We modeled indices to abundance in relation to multi-scale habitat features for nine songbirds reliant on both sagebrush and pinyon-juniper woodlands for breeding. Findings demonstrate that targeted sage grouse habitat restoration under the Sage Grouse Initiative is not at odds with protection of pinyon jay populations. Rather, conifer management has largely occurred in the northern sagebrush ecosystem where models suggest that past cuts likely benefit Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher while avoiding pinyon jay habitat. Extending our spatial modeling further south beyond the sagebrush biome could better equip conservationists with more comprehensive decision-support, particularly where pinyon jays face additional pressures of drought-induced tree mortality.