Climate models predict that the region of the Great Plains Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GPLCC) will experience increased maximum and minimum temperatures, reduced frequency but greater intensity of precipitation events, and earlier springs. These climate changes along with different landscape management techniques may influence the persistence of the lesser prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus), a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act and a priority species under the GPLCC, in positive or negative ways. The objectives of this study were to conduct (1) a literature review of lesser prairie-chicken nesting phenology and ecology, (2) an analysis of thermal aspects of lesser prairie-chicken nest microclimate data, and (3) an analysis of nest site selection, nest survival, and vegetation response to 10 years of tebuthiuron and/or grazing treatments.
We found few reports in the literature containing useful data on the nesting phenology of lesser prairie-chickens; therefore, managers must rely on short-term observations and measurements of parameters that provide some predictive insight into climate impacts on nesting ecology. Our field studies showed that prairie-chickens on nests were able to maintain relatively consistent average nest temperature of 31 °C and nest humidities of 56.8 percent whereas average external temperatures (20.3–35.0 °C) and humidities (35.2–74.9 percent) varied widely throughout the 24 hour (hr) cycle. Grazing and herbicide treatments within our experimental areas were designed to be less intensive than in common practice. We determined nest locations by radio-tagging hen lesser prairie-chickens captured at leks, which are display grounds at which male lesser prairie-chickens aggregate and attempt to attract a female for mating. Because nest locations selected by hen lesser prairie-chicken are strongly associated with the lek at which they were captured, we assessed nesting habitat use on the basis of hens captured at individual leks, and then for all leks pooled. There was no clear pattern of selection for treatment type for nest placement among hens associated with individual leks; however, when hens from all leks were pooled, we found nesting lesser prairie-chickens selected control plots for nesting over plots that were grazed, treated with tebuthiuron, or were both grazed and treated with tebuthiuron. Overall, the probability of a nest surviving the incubation period was 0.57 for this study and did not vary significantly among treatment types. In contrast to nesting preference for untreated habitats, lek use exhibited no noticeable selection of treatment type. Over the 10 years of the habitat management study, there was 91 percent less sand shinnery oak (Quercus havardii) in treated areas than untreated areas. The removal of sand shinnery oak made environmental soil moisture more available for grasses and forbs to germinate and grow. Grasses increased by 149 percent and forbs increased by 257 percent in treated areas as compared to untreated areas throughout the study period. Our combined results, including our habitat selection analysis at the individual lek level, indicated that reduced rates of herbicide and short-duration grazing treatments were not detrimental to nesting lesser prairie-chickens and that populations of lesser prairie-chickens in shrub-dominated ecosystems may benefit from reduced rates of herbicide application and short duration of grazing that results in increased habitat heterogeneity.