Seasonal drought in North America’s sagebrush biome structures dynamic mesic resources for sage-grouse

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This study estimates biome‐wide mesic resource productivity from 1984 to 2016 using remote sensing to identify patterns of food availability influencing selective pressures on sage‐grouse. We linked productivity to abiotic factors to examine effects of seasonal drought across time, space, and land tenure, with findings partitioned along gradients of ecosystem water balance within Great Basin, Rocky Mountains and Great Plains regions. Precipitation was the driver of mesic resource abundance explaining ≥70% of variance in drought‐limited vegetative productivity. Spatiotemporal shifts in mesic abundance were apparent given biome‐wide climatic trends that reduced precipitation below three‐quarters of normal in 20% of years. Drought sensitivity structured grouse populations wherein landscapes with the greatest uncertainty in mesic abundance and distribution supported the fewest grouse. Privately owned lands encompassed 40% of sage‐grouse range, but contained a disproportional 68% of mesic resources. Regional drought sensitivity identified herein acted as ecological minimums to influence differences in landscape carrying capacity across sage‐grouse range. Our model depictions likely reflect a new normal in water scarcity that could compound impacts of demographic bottlenecks in Great Basin and Great Plains. We conclude that long‐term population maintenance depends on a diversity of drought resistant mesic resources that offset climate driven variability in vegetative productivity. We recommend a holistic public–private lands approach to mesic restoration to offset a deepening risk of water scarcity.

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