Sage grouse feathers help track bird movements

2014-07-20T00:15:00Z Sage grouse feathers help track bird movementsU.S. Geological Survey The Billings Gazette
July 20, 2014 12:15 am  • 

A team of biologists is collecting feathers from more than 7,000 leks spread across 11 western states and two Canadian provinces to gather genetic information.

When extracted and analyzed, the DNA will reveal information about movement patterns and population structure useful for management of greater sage grouse throughout their North American range.

Greater sage grouse are broadly distributed, occupy a diversity of sagebrush habitats and face multiple threats. As a result of these threats, sage grouse populations are declining and are now absent from almost one-half of their estimated range prior to Euro-American settlement.

The risks to sage grouse are significant enough to merit candidate status for listing under the Endangered Species Act, although implementation of actions has been precluded by other priorities.

To ensure sage grouse survive, land managers are focusing on maintaining or enhancing sage-grouse populations across their distribution in regions containing the highest densities of breeding birds and their important seasonal habitats. The rationale is that it permits limited resources to be applied in regions that have the greatest potential to benefit the largest proportion of sage grouse.

Implementation of this approach requires detailed information about habitat, connections among sage grouse populations and approaches to restore and maintain sagebrush. 

The critical information about dispersal and gene flow in sage grouse populations can be obtained from the DNA in the sage grouse feathers collected at leks. Monitoring using genetic information is now underway across the entire range of sage grouse through the efforts of a large consortium of scientists and managers.

The genetic data extracted from the collected feathers is used to map relatedness among breeding locations and delineate population structure within the range of sage grouse. When coupled with habitat maps and movement corridors, this genetic data can further the understanding of how geographic distance, topographic characteristics, and land use influence sage grouse dispersal and genetic diversity. A comprehensive picture emerges of where the pathways for dispersing individuals are located throughout the sage grouse range and how those pathways will shift in the future.

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