Considering Spatial Scale and Reproductive Consequences of Habitat Selection when Managing Grasslands for a Threatened Species

Habitat selection that has fitness consequences has important implications for conservation activities. For example, habitat characteristics that influence nest success in birds can be manipulated to improve habitat quality with the goal of ultimately improving reproductive success. We examined habitat selection by the threatened streaked horned lark (Eremophila alpestris strigata) at both the breeding-site (territory) and nest-site scales. Larks were selective at both spatial scales but with contrasting selection. At the territory scale, male larks selected sparsely vegetated grasslands with relatively short vegetation. At the nest-site scale, female larks selected sites within territories with higher vegetation density and more perennial forbs. These nest-site scale choices had reproductive consequences, with greater nest success in areas with higher densities of perennial forbs. We experimentally manipulated lark habitat structure in an attempt to mimic the habitat conditions selected by larks by using late summer prescribed fires. After the burn, changes in vegetation structure were in the direction preferred by larks but habitat effects attenuated by the following year. Our results highlight the importance of evaluating habitat selection at spatial scales appropriate to the species of interest, especially when attempting to improve habitat quality for rare and declining species. They also highlight the importance of conducting restoration activities in a research context. For example, because the sparsely vegetated conditions created by fire attenuate, there may be value in examining more frequent burns or hotter fires as the next management and research action. We hope the design outlined in this study will serve as an integrated research and management example for conserving grassland birds generally.