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Predicting songbird response to management and environmental changes across a PJ-sagebrush ecotone

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Effective wildlife management requires robust information regarding population status, habitat requirements, and likely responses to changing resource conditions. Single-species management may inadequately conserve communities and result in undesired effects to non-target species. Thus, management can benefit from understanding habitat relationships for multiple species. Pinyon pine and juniper are expanding into sagebrush-dominated ecosystems within North America and mechanical removal of these trees is frequently conducted to restore sagebrush ecosystems and recover greater sage-grouse. However, pinyon-juniper removal effects on non-target species are poorly understood, and changing pinyon-juniper woodland dynamics, climate, and anthropogenic development may obscure conservation priorities. To better predict responses to changing resource conditions, evaluate non-target effects of pinyon-juniper removal, prioritize species for conservation, and inform species recovery within pinyon-juniper and sagebrush ecosystems, we modeled population trends and density-habitat relationships for four sagebrush-associated, four pinyon-juniper-associated, and three generalist songbird species with respect to these ecosystems. We fit hierarchical population models to point count data collected throughout the western United States from 2008 to 2020. We found regional population changes for 10 of 11 species investigated; 6 of which increased in the highest elevation region of our study. Our models indicate pinyon-juniper removal will benefit Brewer’s sparrow, green-tailed towhee, and sage thrasher densities. Conversely, we predict largest negative effects of pinyon-juniper removal for species occupying early successional pinyon-juniper woodlands: Bewick’s wren, black-throated gray warblers, gray flycatcher, and juniper titmouse. Our results highlight the importance of considering effects to non-target species before implementing large-scale habitat manipulations. Our modeling framework can help prioritize species and regions for conservation action, infer effects of management interventions and a changing environment on wildlife, and help land managers balance habitat requirements across ecosystems.

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