Assessing Wildlife Habitat to Guide Conservation Planning and Restoration

ROOM: Room 140 – Aztec
This symposium presents some of the wildlife-specific results and assessment approaches currently in development through focused research and testing of proposed models. Researchers present their latest work on habitat description, suitability analysis and management in this forum. The research focuses on describing habitat and methods to evaluate habitat deficiencies against known species needs. Deficiency identification leads to prescribing conservation practices presented to landowners as part of a comprehensive resource management plan. The models provide guidance to establish or restore habitat for such threatened and endangered species as the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, Southwestern willow and flycatcher and narrow-headed gartersnake as well as for common species. Some research provides specific guidance on prescribing the timing and intensity of livestock grazing within habitats to allow landowner participation in species recovery while maintaining use and control of their land.

1:10PM Existing Methods of Assessing Wildlife Habitat on Private Property During the NRCS Conservation Planning Process
  Stuart Tuttle
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides conservation technical and financial assistance to address opportunities, concerns, and problems related to the use of natural resources and to help land users make sound natural resource management decisions on private, tribal, and other non-federal lands. Part of the natural resource inventory process includes an assessment of wildlife habitat to detect problems and opportunities for improvement. The Landuser can select from several alternatives what will work for them to improve habitat and other resource concerns. This talk will introduce the most common habitat assessment types developed by NRCS and give an overview of the other talks in the session.
1:30PM Connecting Arizona’s Wildlife Species to Ecological Site Descriptions – a New Model
  Ali Lenton; Paul Beier; Marcus Miller; Stuart Tuttle
Ecological Site Descriptions (ESD’s) are a method of characterizing areas of land via soil properties, vegetation type and amount, precipitation amount, and other elements unique to the area, used by the Natural Resource Conservation Service and other related agencies. Land managers can use these descriptions to better plan management activities and anticipate future conditions and challenges to the area. Most ESD’s contain limited habitat information on the wildlife species expected to occur within the Ecological Site, tending to concentrate on game species. We are developing a new model that includes all the expected terrestrial vertebrate wildlife and their associated habitat requirements that incorporates a wildlife-specific state and transition schematic, narrative of management implications and linkage to an extensive species database. The new model greatly expands the wildlife interpretation section of Ecological Site Descriptions, providing land managers better information for basing management decisions.
1:50PM MOM Knows Best: Mouse Occupancy Modeling Reveals Habitat of an Endangered Rodent
  Carol Chambers; Valerie Horncastle; Garrett Billings; Judith Springer
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonious luteus) is considered a riparian obligate that uses tall, dense herbaceous vegetation along perennial flowing water such as streams and wet meadows. Vegetation dominated by sedges (Carex spp.) and forbs provides high quality cover and food sources for the jumping mouse. We tested this habitat description using occupancy modeling, an analytical technique that allows for a rapid assessment of multiple sites and yields probabilities of occupancy. We used a Geographic Information System to select locations across the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests based on our criteria for elevation (<2740 m), perennial streams, and riparian vegetation. We randomly selected 75 of these sites and stratified them based on grazing and recreational use. At each site, we used 80 Sherman live traps or track plates over 3 nights. We detected jumping mice at 21 sites; 12 with livestock grazing. We detected jumping mice at 4 sites outside designated critical habitat. Sites varied in their plant communities but overall had high species richness. Our model found that jumping mice used wide, low-gradient streams with high soil moisture, tall vegetation, and alder, forb, and sedge cover. Less important predictors indicated higher occupancy of jumping mice when plant species richness was higher, distance to roads and recreational sites was lower and lower occupancy at sites grazed by livestock and with higher grass cover. Our results support previous findings and highlight the potential importance of stream characteristics for jumping mouse habitat.
2:10PM Tracking Escherichia Coli Infections of the Endangered New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse
  Austin Dikeman; Daniel Sanchez; Viacheslav Fofanov; Faith Walker; Carol Chambers
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus) is a riparian-obligate species in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. When listed under ESA as Endangered in 2014, the most significant threat to existing populations was habitat loss due to livestock grazing, human recreation, and wildfire. In 2015, we identified a new threat: Escherichia coli infections. Most E. coli found in the gut of the jumping mouse is from a pathogenic clade, but the source and risk of disease caused by this infection in jumping mice was unknown. The possibility of disease spillover from livestock, wildlife, or nearby human recreation areas is of particular concern. To evaluate the potential for disease in jumping mice, we screened for the presence of 7 toxin-producing genes of E. coli in jumping mouse fecal samples over a 3-year period. To determine the source of E. coli in the jumping mouse we genetically typed and compared bacterial samples of jumping mice, other wildlife, livestock, and water downstream of camping areas. These results will clarify whether jumping mice are threatened by infectious disease and provide useful insight for conservation of an endangered species.
2:30PM Salad Within: Genetically Identifying Diet of an Endangered Species
  Daniel Sanchez; Austin L. Dikeman; Faith M. Walker; Valerie Horncastle; Carol L. Chambers
The New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus) is an endangered subspecies that occupies riparian zones in the southwestern United States. This subspecies forages atop tall herbaceous canopies during 3 months of activity, then enters a 9-month hibernation period. Understanding how jumping mice use habitat throughout their 3 months of activity is important for conservation, but their diet remains largely undescribed. During the summers of 2015 and 2016, we collected feces from 43 live-captured jumping mice on 3 National Forests in Arizona and New Mexico. We used stable isotope analysis and metagenomics to confirm diet was herbivorous (i.e., did not include arthropods). We then used DNA metabarcoding to identify dietary plant taxa to genus. We detected 44 plant genera with a mean of 4.3 ± 2.6 per individual jumping mouse with dietary diversity significantly increasing in August, the month prior to hibernation. Although jumping mice have an overall varied diet, the most common taxa (in 27 to 53% of individuals) were avens (Geum), sunflowers (Helianthus), and willowherbs (Epilobium). However, rushes (Juncus) and sedges (Carex), plants that are often common in jumping mouse habitat, were detected in lower frequencies, suggesting that they function more as structure and cover for the jumping mouse. Our data suggest that the jumping mouse depends on dense herbeal availability in riparian areas and that conservation of this diversity is most critical in the month leading to hibernation. We also compare consumption to availability to better assess habitat use.
2:50PM Refreshment Break
3:20PM Geomorphic Analysis of New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse (Lapus Hudsonius Luteus) Habitat
  Marcus Miller; Stu Tuttle; Barry Southerland; Carol L. Chambers
Riparian obligates such as the Endangered New Mexico Meadow Jumping Mouse (NMMJM) (Zapus hudsonius luteous) are dependent on habitats that are created and maintained by fluvial processes. Perturbations, both locally and at a watershed scale, can impact these processes and in turn reduce the quality and quantity of the riparian habitats they create. We collected geomorphic data which describe the health of fluvial processes related to riparian and floodplain habitat creation and maintenance. We analyzed this data in conjunction with trapping and track plate data for New Mexico Meadow jumping Mouse for the same locations to determine if there is a correlation between healthy fluvial processes and the presence and abundance of NMMJM. Strong correlations were found with several metrics; entrenchment ratio, bank height ratio, flood prone width, channel slope, and channel evolution phase. Our findings can be used to predict the presence of NMMJM and to determine restoration potential of a site.
3:40PM Identifying Habitat Resources for Conservation of Riparian Birds on Working Landscapes
  Robert J. Steidl; Erik Andersen; Larry D. Howery; George Ruyle; Zachary Smalls; Stuart Tuttle
In the southwestern U.S., mesic riparian areas cover a small fraction of the landscape, yet provide primary habitat for a disproportionate number of the region’s vertebrates. Because riparian zones are highly dynamic, vegetation in these areas can change frequently and unpredictably. Consequently, conservation and management of species that rely on riparian zones requires that we accommodate these natural dynamics in addition to those introduced through other forces, such as grazing livestock. Our goal is to establishing management targets to help maintain habitat for key bird species in riparian zones in working landscapes. Therefore, we surveyed birds in riparian areas across Arizona and New Mexico to identify habitat features important to breeding southwestern willow flycatchers (Empidonax traillii extimus), yellow-billed cuckoos (Coccyzus americanus), and 12 other regionally important riparian birds. We surveyed birds, vegetation, and other environmental features, and observed willow flycatchers on 29% of transects and yellow-billed cuckoos on 32% of transects. By using hierarchical models for occupancy, we were able to contrast habitat features at survey locations where we did and did not observe each species, while accounting for imperfect surveys. This allowed us to identify a suite of habitat features important to the distribution of each species, which provide the basis for establishing management targets to maintain habitat and promote their recovery on working landscapes in the southwestern U.S.
4:00PM Effects of Time-Controlled, Livestock Grazing on Habitat of Southwestern Willow Flycatchers in West-Central Arizona
  Zachary Smalls; Larry Howery; Stuart Tuttle; George Ruyle; Robert Steidl
The southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus) is an endangered subspecies of willow flycatcher that inhabits dense riparian forests of the southwestern United States. Many factors, including improper livestock grazing practices, are thought to explain declines in this species, although no long-term studies have sought to quantify the effects of grazing on willow flycatcher habitat. The main goals of our study were to: 1) investigate how time-controlled grazing by domestic livestock and episodic flooding affect willow flycatcher habitat throughout the year, and 2) provide quantitative baseline data on riparian woody vegetation that is a key habitat element for willow flycatchers. We monitored vegetation on two ranches in west-central Arizona throughout 2015 and 2016 and focused on changes in vegetation in response to routine livestock grazing practices. Specifically, we monitored biomass (%), cover (%), and height (m) of the dominant plant species (both woody and herbaceous); density (#/m2) of woody species (non-seedlings and seedlings); and mean utilization (%) of woody and herbaceous species. Time-controlled livestock grazing up to a maximum of 61 days resulted in low relative and total utilizations for herbaceous (<23%) and woody (<20%) plants during all sampling periods. Consequently, species composition, canopy cover, woody height, and density of non-seedling woody plants remained relatively stable across most sampling periods. Density of woody seedlings changed most in response to episodic flooding.
4:20PM Integrating Information on Riparian Systems and Processes to Improve Evaluation of Habitat for Riparian Obligate Species on Private Lands
  Matthew Johnson; Jennifer Holmes; Erika M. Nowak
We will discuss the development of tools for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife effort to provide landowners with technical assistance to restore populations of riparian obligate wildlife. Species of concern selected by the Arizona NRCS State Office include southwestern willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii extimus), least Bell’s vireo (Vireo bellii pusillus), Chiricahua leopard frog (Lithobates chiricahuensis), yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccycus americanus), northern Mexican gartersnake (Thamnophis eques megalops), and narrow-headed gartersnake (T. rufipunctatus). Our research aims to provide species-specific information needed to improve on-the-ground standardized evaluation of riparian habitat condition, and establishment of appropriate baseline habitat conditions. Identifying improved methods to evaluate habitat deficiencies will enable identification of conservation practices needed to improve resource conditions for species of concern and for other riparian species. 1
4:40PM Assessing Wildlife Use of Livestock Water Sources in the Eastern US
  Nancy L. Buschhaus; Russell L. Milam; Daniel A R Taylor; Stuart R. Tuttle; Marcus Miller
Many factors influence the availability and quality of natural water sources that wildlife use on the landscape. However, when natural water sources are unavailable or undesirable, wildlife may opportunistically exploit artificial water sources, including those provided for livestock. To help the NRCS determine whether wildlife escape structures should be required in NRCS-funded livestock troughs east of the Mississippi, in June of 2016 we collected survey data from 269 NRCS employees from across the eastern U.S. regarding the incidence of wildlife mortalities in livestock water troughs. Almost 37% of the respondents either directly observed or were told by producers about dead wildlife in livestock troughs. In addition to the survey, we used three Bushnell Trophy Cam HD trail cameras (two on field scan mode and one in IR detection mode) and a Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4 bat detector to monitor wildlife visits to a total of 14 troughs in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia for 48-hour sampling periods from July to September 2016, with a total of 672 hours of observations. We examined the frequency of wildlife encounters with livestock troughs, the type of wildlife using these troughs, and trough characteristics. Several species of wildlife were observed using or interacting with more than 60% of the monitored troughs, primarily avian and mammalian species. From June to August 2017 we will monitor an additional 18 troughs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana, Florida, Georgia, and Ohio. Our preliminary results suggest that livestock troughs east of the Mississippi may be an important alternative source of water for several species of wildlife, especially moderate- to small-sized wildlife who may be looking to decrease the risk of predation associated with longer forays to natural water sources. Based on these initial results, requiring wildlife escape ramps in livestock troughs appears to be justified.

Organizers: Stu Tuttle, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Supported by: USDA NRCS

Location: Albuquerque Convention Center Date: September 26, 2017 Time: 1:10 pm - 5:00 pm