SOCIAL AND ECOLOGICAL DIMENSIONS OF PRAIRIE CONSERVATION: LINKING RANCHERS, RANGELAND HEALTH AND ABUNDANCE FOR THREE GRASSLAND SONGBIRD SPECIES AT RISK
Temperate grasslands and the biodiversity they sustain are becoming increasingly imperilled. Habitat loss and degradation are considered primary causes of grassland species declines. Since livestock production is a dominant use of remaining temperate grassland, livestock producers and the grazing management decisions they make play a vital role in the recovery of grassland species. In this thesis, I examined social and ecological factors that drive habitat management and abundance of prairie wildlife species so as to contribute to conservation planning for prairie species at risk and their habitat. I focused on grassland songbirds because, of all prairie wildlife species, grassland birds have undergone some of the most dramatic declines in recent years. I employed an interdisciplinary approach, using theory and methodology from ornithology, rangeland management and the human dimension of conservation biology to achieve three objectives: i) to determine the extent to which indices of rangeland health explained variation in grassland songbird abundance for ten grassland bird species, including three species currently listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act: Sprague’s pipit, McCown’s longspur and Chestnut-collared longspur; ii) to describe livestock producer characteristics, summarize producer awareness of and attitudes towards species at risk and the Canadian Species at Risk Act and evaluate how characteristics, awareness and attitudes affect producer willingness to engage in voluntary stewardship actions that support species at risk conservation; and iii) to explore relationships between select social and ecological factors and bird abundance for the three aforementioned grassland bird species at risk to elucidate novel pathways for achieving their conservation. I address the first objective in Chapter 2, where I identify the rangeland health index as a poor predictor of bird abundance and vegetation structure variables, such as litter and vegetation volume, as strong predictors of bird abundance. These findings make a case for further refining the rangeland health index as a tool for biodiversity assessment. In Chapter 3 I achieve the second objective and summarize producer characteristics, awareness and attitudes towards species. I also identify awareness, attitudes and rangeland management learning approach as important to producer willingness to support species at risk recovery. I accomplish the third objective in Chapter 4, where I present results of a structural equation model that upholds bird-habitat relationships identified in Chapter 2 and distinguishes management jurisdiction, size of land holdings and attitudes as important social factors to consider in conservation planning. Chapters 2 and 3 contribute to theory and methodology related to the ecological and social dimensions of grassland bird conservation, respectively. Chapter 4 demonstrates how structural equation models can be used to integrate social and ecological factors, and thereby inform habitat conservation and management. Both social and ecological data presented in this thesis make valuable contributions to producer engagement and habitat management aspects of conservation planning efforts for species at risk in the Milk River watershed of southwestern Saskatchewan. Overall, my findings point to the importance of a joint effort by regional private and public managers to use livestock grazing to create a mosaic of vegetation structure and habitat conditions suitable for the grassland bird community as a whole. This thesis provides a methodological approach that draws on and integrates social and ecological data, methods and concepts, thereby demonstrating how to conduct interdisciplinary research for biological conservation.
DegreeDoctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
DepartmentSchool of Environment and Sustainability
ProgramEnvironment and Sustainability
SupervisorReed, Maureen; Davis, Stephen K.
CommitteeBelcher, Ken; Thorpe, Jeff; Hobson, Keith; Cunfer, Geoff
Copyright DateJanuary 2014
grassland songbirds, vegetation structure, rangeland health, ranchers, voluntary stewardship, species at risk, interdisciplinary