Wildfire and the ecological niche: Diminishing habitat suitability for an indicator species within semi‐arid ecosystems

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This study demonstrates a multistage modeling approach that integrates habitat selection and survival during the key nesting life‐stage of a bird species of high conservation concern, the greater sage‐grouse. We applied these spatially explicit models to a spatiotemporally robust dataset of sage‐grouse nest locations and fates across wildfire‐altered sagebrush ecosystems of the Great Basin ecoregion, western United States. Female sage‐grouse exhibited intricate habitat selection patterns that varied across regional gradients of ecological productivity among sagebrush communities, but often selected nest sites that disproportionately resulted in nest failure. For example, 23% of nests occurred in wildfire‐affected habitats characterized by reduced sagebrush cover and greater composition of invasive annual grasses. We found survival of nests was negatively associated with wildfire‐affected areas, but positively associated with higher elevations with increased ruggedness and overall shrub cover. Strong site fidelity likely drove sage‐grouse to continue nesting in habitats degraded by wildfire. Hence, increasing frequency and extent of wildfire may contribute disproportionately to reduced reproductive success by creating ecological traps that act as population sinks. Identifying such habitat mismatches between selection and survival facilitates deeper understanding of the mechanisms driving reduced geographic niche space and population decline at broad spatiotemporal scales, while guiding management actions to areas that would be most beneficial to the species.

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