Terns and Plovers

The Federal listing status of interior least terns ( Sternula antillarum, endangered; hereafter “terns”) and Northern Great Plains piping plovers ( Charadrius melodus, threatened; hereafter “plovers”) has motivated substantial work to understand ecological relationships between these birds and their nesting habitats. Both species build nests on shoreline and sandbar habitat throughout the Northern Great Plains. Habitat located within the Missouri River system supports nesting populations and is an important component of recovery efforts for both species. Since 2005, NPWRC research on terns and plovers has broadly focused on describing the demographics of populations (i.e. estimating reproductive rates, survival rates, and emigration/immigration rates) while identifying the environmental factors underlying population demography. To this end, our work has featured a diversity of studies of the years, including (but not limited to) investigations of the: relationship of tern foraging behavior to reproductive success, drivers of among habitat dispersal, influence of flood created habitat on reproductive success, use of remote sensing tools to quantify tern and plover nesting habitat, and development of predictive models to identify reservoir and alkali lakes nesting habitat for piping plovers. In addition, NPWRC continues to serve a critical role in the assessment, implementation, and creation of field methods and materials widely applicable to research conducted on large riverine ecosystems.




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Agricultural Land Drainage

Wetland drainage has been a chronic problem affecting ecosystems in the Prairie Pothole Region since agriculture entered the region and a perception of wetlands and wastelands developed. However, much of the region is hydrologically closed and therefore water drained from wetlands occurring at higher topographic positions on a landscape often accumulate in down-gradient wetlands. Thus, water from many wetland basins becomes "consolidated" into a smaller number of wetlands at lower elevations, increasing the quantity and affecting the quality of water in these down-gradient wetlands. Additionally, the rapid expansion of agricultural subsurface tile drainage in the Prairie Pothole Region has potential to also alter wetland ecosystem services (e.g., waterfowl habitat, water storage) by further changing the hydrology of wetlands and their catchments.  We are assessing how hydrologic alterations related to consolidation and tile drainage have influenced wetlands and wetland communities and the potential for further effects into the future.




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Ungulate Ecology

By the early 1900s, deer, elk, moose, bison, and other hoofed mammals—“ungulates”—were eliminated from much of their historic range in the United States.  Current distributions and abundance reflect successes and failures of conservation efforts during the last century and pose new management challenges.  Restoration and protection are still important concerns for some species in some areas.  However, access to hunting and viewing opportunities for a growing human population and effects of overabundant ungulates on vegetation, other wildlife, and human activity are also priorities.
 
Ungulate management is a contentious issue because many stakeholders are invested deeply, both emotionally and materially, in competing interests.  For example, you may enjoy watching, feeding, or hunting the same deer that are eating your neighbor’s azaleas, preventing seedling regeneration in national park, or causing automobile accidents.  To make matters worse, even stakeholders who share a common concern have not shared the same experiences and are likely to disagree about solutions.  Research conducted by center scientists provides an objective basis for evaluation of ungulate management needs and development of management strategies.




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Waterfowl and Other Waterbirds

The Prairie Pothole Region is the most important breeding area in North America for many species of ducks.  The region supports more than 22 million breeding ducks each year, representing about 50% of the total estimated surveyed duck population of North America.  The region’s wetlands also provide critical resting habitat and food resources for many more waterfowl that migrate through the area during spring and fall.  Invertebrate and plant resources provided by the region’s productive wetlands play a critical role in duck productivity, while upland habitat, particularly grasslands, provide nesting habitat.  Conversion to agricultural, wetland drainage, and more recently oil and gas development, have resulted in substantial losses of wetland and nesting habitats since the early 1900s.  Wetland losses are estimated at 49% and 35% in North and South Dakota, respectively, and grassland losses are estimated at 67% and 53% in these states.  Intensification of agriculture in the last decade has contributed to further habitat losses.  The Conservation Reserve Program, which had provided more than 4 millions of acres of upland nesting habitat since 1985, has shrunk to less than 1 million acres. Small, shallow wetlands, critical to many dabbling ducks are most susceptible to drainage, sedimentation, invasive species, and other disturbances. The combination of a long wet cycle recently and drainage activities consolidating wetlands has altered wetland hydrology and in turn influenced food resources available to ducks. Northern Prairie is reknown for its research on waterfowl, particularly the ecology and management of prairie ducks, and remains active in the field.  Management and conservation of these migratory game birds requires clear understanding of the factors influencing waterfowl distribution, abundance, survival, and productivity. Center research continues to address research needs of DOI and the flyways. Our waterfowl research also encompasses areas beyond the PPR that are important to breeding or migrant waterfowl, such as the Platte River and Rainwater Basin of Nebraska and montane wetlands of the Intermountain West.




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