Population and Habitat Analyses for Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in the Bi-State Distinct Population Segment: 2018 Update

Open-File Report 2019-1149
Prepared in cooperation with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Nevada Department of Wildlife, and the U.S. Forest Service
By: , and 

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Executive Summary

The Bi-State Distinct Population Segment (Bi-State DPS) of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus, hereinafter “sage-grouse”) represents a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population that straddles the border between Nevada and California. The primary threat to these sage-grouse populations is the expansion of single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla) and Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) into sagebrush ecosystems, which fragments and reduces population connectivity and survival. Other important threats include low water availability during brood-rearing, particularly during drought, and increased predation by common ravens (Corvus corax), a generalist predator often associated with anthropogenic resource subsidies. Although the Bi-State DPS occurs at high elevations relative to sage-grouse range-wide, changes in historical wildfire cycles and the conversion of native shrubs to invasive annual grasslands still threaten these populations. The Bi-State DPS has undergone multiple federal status assessments and associated litigation. For example, in October of 2013, the Bi-State DPS was proposed for listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), then withdrawn in April 2015. The withdrawal decision was challenged, and in May 2018, a Federal district court ordered the withdrawal decision to be vacated, and USFWS was required to re-open the October 2013 listing evaluation.

In response, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), with State and Federal collaborators, embarked on a multipronged analysis to provide current and best available science regarding population status of sage-grouse within the Bi-State DPS. Using data from a long-term monitoring program, we carried out four analytical study objectives, and here, we provide preliminary results of these analyses. First, we used integrated population modeling (IPM) to predict annual population abundance and annual finite rate of population change for the Bi-State DPS, as a whole, and for each subpopulation between 1995 and 2018. Because sage-grouse exhibit population cycles (periodic increases and decreases in abundance across approximately 6- to 10-year wavelengths), we estimated trends across three nested temporal scales that represent one (11 years), two (18 years), and three (24 years) complete population cycles. These estimates of relatively long-term averaged population change account for temporal (that is, interannual) variation. Our model predicted population abundance for the Bi-State DPS during 2018 at 3,305 individuals (2,247–4,683), with the majority occupying Bodie Hills and Long Valley. The model also predicted cyclic dynamics in abundance through time with evidence of 24-year population growth and slight trends of decline over the past 18 years. Specifically, across the Bi-State DPS as a whole, we estimated annual average at 0.99, 0.99, and 1.02 over the one, two, and three population cycles, which equated to a 10.5 percent, 16.6 percent decrease, and 60.0 percent increase in abundance over the 11-, 18-, and 24-year cycles. Estimated abundance in 2018 had not reached numbers lower than those predicted during 1995. However, we found spatial variation in population trends across the three cycles. Bodie Hills subpopulation comprised the greatest (1,521) and exhibited average annual  greater than 1.0 across all periods resulting in average annual increases of 7 percent. This relatively large subpopulation has grown 5 times larger than what was predicted in 1995 while experiencing cyclical dynamics within that period.

Conversely, other smaller subpopulations within the Bi-State DPS exhibited average annual  equal to or less than 1.0 resulting in estimated 10-year risks of extirpation ranging from 2.0 to 76.1 percent. In general, evidence of decline among smaller subpopulations was greatest for the most recent period (2008–18) compared to a period that encompassed three full population cycles (24-year). This difference coincides with an intense period of drought that began in 2012.

For comparative purposes as part of this first objective, we conducted a similar analysis for populations of sage-grouse within Nevada and California but outside the Bi-State DPS. We developed a region-wide and distance-weighted IPM using lek count from Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) databases and with telemetry data collected by USGS across 12 sage-grouse subpopulations. Our models predicted similar patterns in population cycling outside the Bi-State DPS but with much stronger evidence of long-term declines across 24 years. Specifically, median  averaged across each year of the 11-, 18-, and 24-year periods resulted in average annual  values of 0.94, 0.97, and 0.99, respectively. These values equate to 41.0 percent, 38.5 percent, and 21.3 percent declines over the corresponding periods.

Second, we used lek count data in a state-space modeling framework to compare trends in population abundance across different spatial scales (that is, leks versus Bi-State DPS). This hierarchical framework allowed us to disentangle declines associated with climate conditions as opposed to other local level factors that might signal the need for management intervention. Specifically, we identified 7 leks that were both declining and recently decoupled from larger spatial scale trends, typically governed by climatic conditions (referred to as soft or hard signals). The goal of this analysis was to provide an early warning system that might have implications for conservation actions at local scales.

Third, we developed phenological (spring, summer–fall, and winter) and reproductive life stage (nesting, early brood-rearing, and late-brood rearing) based resource selection functions using various environmental covariates. We report rankings of variable importance for each season and life stage, developed maps of habitat selection indices (HSI), binned categories representing low, moderate, and high classes of quality (where any category greater than or equal to low indicated selected habitat) for each phenological season and life stage, and produced composite maps by selected phenological and reproductive stage to estimate annual habitat.

Fourth, we used  for each lek within the Bi-State DPS to carry out a spatial analysis that quantified substantial changes in the distribution of occupied habitat across long- (24-year) and short- (11-year) term periods. Owing to differences among available datasets, the long-term analysis primarily reflected spatial shifts among subpopulations comprising the majority of the Bi-State DPS (that is, Bodie Hills and Long Valley) while the short-term analysis also quantified changes among subpopulations along the periphery. Over long and short-term periods, the overall distribution of occupied habitat (as measured by 99 percent utilization distributions intersecting any quantified habitat) was reduced by 20,573 ha and 55,492 ha, respectively. Occupied core areas (as measured by 50 percent utilization distributions intersecting any quantified habitat) over long-term periods were solely located in Bodie Hills and Long Valley. Although nearly all subpopulations experienced contractions in occupied overall and core distribution, Bodie Hills experienced spatial expansion that occurred with concomitant spatial contraction at Long Valley over both periods. Subpopulations at the northern (Pine Nuts), central (Sagehen) and southern (White-Mountains) extents of the Bi-State DPS also experienced spatial contraction over the short-term period. These findings, coupled with those of population trends, indicate long-term patterns in redistribution of sage-grouse from Long Valley and peripheral subpopulations to Bodie Hills. That is, sage-grouse subpopulations at the periphery are declining while the largest population at the core is increasing, which could have meaningful impacts on overall metapopulation persistence. We provide evidence for loss of occupied habitat (reduced distribution) given local extirpation of subpopulations.

Fifth, we calculated percentages of selected phenological, life stage, and annual habitat that each subpopulation contributed to the Bi-State DPS. We then intersected these maps with a composite estimate of occupied habitat from the fourth objective and calculated percentages of selected habitat likely occupied by sage-grouse that each subpopulation contributed to the Bi-State DPS. These values provide evidence for loss of occupied habitat and subsequent reductions in spatial distribution given reductions in abundance and, in some cases, extirpation of leks within subpopulations.

Lastly, we carried out an initial in-depth analysis of selection for irrigated pastures and wet meadows during the brood-rearing stage for the Long Valley subpopulation. We chose this subpopulation because it represents a population core, representing 26.5 percent of total sage-grouse within the Bi-State DPS, and has exhibited long-term declines in abundance and distribution. This subpopulation is highly sensitive to precipitation and other factors that influence water availability. Models predicted higher use of the interior portions of irrigated pastures and wet meadows during late brood-rearing period, which represented a potentially risky use of habitat that was exacerbated during periods of low moisture (for example, drought, reduced water delivery, or both). Sage-grouse typically used edges of riparian areas and pastures, largely because the interior of these mesic areas consisted of considerably less overhead concealment cover (for example, shrubs) that likely resulted in a higher risk of mortality. We found that a lack of water delivery to pastures in the form of overwinter precipitation or diversion ditches increased the movements of sage-grouse to the interior of pastures. Although further investigation of water delivery impacts on chick survival are warrented, our initial findings regarding resource selection may explain recent declines in population growth at Long Valley.

Suggested Citation

Coates, P.S., Ricca, M.A., Prochazka, B.G., O’Neil, S,T., Severson, J.P., Mathews, S.R., Espinosa, S., Gardner, S., Lisius, S., and Delehanty, D.J., 2020, Population and habitat analyses for greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in the bi-state distinct population segment—2018 update: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2019–1149, 122 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20191149.

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Background
  • Study Areas
  • Methods
  • Preliminary Results and Interpretation
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes 1–6

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Population and habitat analyses for greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in the bi-state distinct population segment—2018 update
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2019-1149
DOI 10.3133/ofr20191149
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description x, 122 p.
Country United States
State California, Nevada
Online Only (Y/N) Y
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