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Developing a Conservation Management Plan for the Idaho National Laboratory

Investigators and Affiliations

Christopher L. Jenkins, Conservation Scientist, North America Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Idaho Falls, ID
Craig Groves, Conservation Scientist, North America Program, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bozeman, MT

Funding Sources

United States Department of Energy

Background

The sagebrush steppe of western North America is one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. Sagebrush steppe is threatened by soil disturbance (especially associated with overgrazing) that promotes invasion by exotic annual vegetation (such as cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum) which in turn alters natural fire regimes. These types of landscape changes are having significant effects on sagebrush steppe wildlife. Despite the widespread nature of the threats to sagebrush steppe, the INL has experienced only limited disturbance and is likely the most intact example of sagebrush steppe remaining.

Without an adequate management plan in place the biodiversity of sagebrush habitats on the INL are at a greater risk of being degraded. Localized threats to biodiversity on the INL include livestock grazing in peripheral areas, invasion of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), fire, raven depredation, and road and facility development. In addition, complex interactions can exist between threats.

Developing a conservation management plan for the INL is important because it will help preserve one of the best remaining sagebrush steppe ecosystems in the world. A conservation management plan is also important to DOE because it will facilitate land use planning on the INL. For example, with a conservation management plan in place and an understanding of the distribution of important biological resources DOE will save time and money when planning projects such a new construction.

Objectives

The overall goal of the project is to conserve sagebrush steppe ecosystems while facilitating land use planning on the INL. Specific objectives include:

  1. Determine the distribution and abundance of pygmy rabbits on the INL.

  2. Determine the distribution and abundance of sage grouse on the INL.

  3. Conduct a biodiversity inventory of the INL Development Zone.

  4. Develop a vegetation map for the INL.

  5. Set conservation priorities on the INL.

  6. Develop an interactive GIS for the INL.

  7. Prepare a conservation management plan for the INL.

Some of the objectives above will be focused on the entire INL (Pygmy Rabbit Studies, Sage Grouse Studies, and Vegetation Mapping) while the Biodiversity Inventory will be focused in two smaller areas in the south central part of the INL designated the Development Corridor and Development Zone (Figure 9-11). Thus, conservation priorities, the interactive planning tool, and the Conservation Management Plan will only completely cover all important biological resources within these two areas.

Accomplishments

Pygmy Rabbit Surveys. In 2006 we conducted developed and applied a novel ground surveying technique for pygmy rabbits. Specifically, we developed an approach where observers on snowshoes survey plots along a series of belt transects. Within each transect observers are keying in on rabbit microhabitat characteristics (e.g., relatively tall sagebrush) and searching for signs of pygmy rabbit occupancy such as tracks, burrows, or pellets. Detection probabilities varied based on the presence of snow and other factors but detection probabilities for the technique were consistently of 0.70. Using this technique we identified pygmy rabbit presence in 52 percent of the plots surveyed and we located a total of 130 burrows systems.

Sage Grouse Surveys

In 2006 we conducted aerial and ground surveys for sage grouse leks. We found a total of 4 new leks during these surveys.

Biodiversity Inventory

As part of the biodiversity inventory we selected a suite of indicator taxa including vegetation, reptiles, passerine birds, raptors, bats, small mammals, mammalian mesocarnivores, and ungulates. Accomplishments in 2006 by taxa are as follows:

Vegetation. We sampled 55 modified Whitaker plots.

Reptiles. We sampled reptiles using 14 trapping arrays, 28 visual surveys, and a series of road surveys. We found a total of 410 individual reptiles of 6 species. Sagebrush lizards and horned lizards were the most commonly sampled species.

Breeding Birds. We sampled 77 plots for breeding birds using point counts.

Burrowing Owls. We sampled the entire Development Zone for burrowing owls using call back surveys. We found a total of 10 burrowing owl burrows.

Bats. We sampled bats using acoustic sampling in the summer and cave surveys in the winter. We found a total of 9 bat species during summer surveys 5 of which are species of conservation concern as identified in the Idaho Bat Conservation Plan. We found a total 712 bats overwintering in the three caves that were surveyed. The majority of overwintering bats were Townsend’s big eared bats which are a species of conservation concern.

Small Mammals. We sampled a total of 57 plots for small mammals using Sherman live traps and Havahart traps.

Plans for Continuation

In 2007 we plan to continue surveys for all species mentioned above and begin surveys for mammalian carnivores and raptors. In addition, we will be beginning radio telemetry projects on sage grouse and pygmy rabbits, a study on raven depredation of sage grouse nests, and a rattlesnake population genetics project.
 

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