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Prairie Grouse Monitoring Project Has a Successful First Year

Starting in spring 2020, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission initiated a new monitoring program to learn more about Nebraska’s greater prairie-chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations and how best to conserve them. The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture partnership has worked closely with NGPC to help develop a methodology and framework for this ambitious effort. 

Survey methodology closely mirrors that of a recent project in South Dakota. Throughout Nebraska’s prairie grouse range, randomly selected square-mile sections were surveyed in the early morning during the peak of breeding season from late March through the end of April. An equal number of sections were surveyed across all four eco-regions (mixed-grass prairie, tallgrass prairie, short-grass prairie, and Sandhills). Sections were also sampled across a wide spectrum of percent grassland and percent tree cover to assess the specific factors that drive prairie grouse distributions and densities across different regions of the state.

In 2020, over 200 sections were surveyed by 93 different observers. Greater prairie chickens were detected on 41 different sections, while sharp-tailed grouse were found on 32 different sections. For both species, detections were more frequent in sections with higher grassland coverage and lower tree coverage. The two species occupy slightly different ranges however, as no greater prairie chickens were found in the short-grass prairie region, where sharp-tailed grouse were found most frequently. Likewise, no sharp-tailed grouse were detected in the tallgrass prairie region, where greater prairie chickens were found on 9 different sections. 

Prairie Grouse Monitoring Map by Dana Varner

Data collection and spatial modeling efforts are expected to continue over the next several years. Ideally, this monitoring effort will be repeated in future years to assess population trends and changes in distribution that occur over time in our ever-changing landscape. 

The following is a list of expected deliverables that will result from this collaborative monitoring effort:

  • Statewide and regional population estimates for greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse
  • Statewide distribution and density maps
  • Increased understanding of the relationship between landscape structure and prairie grouse populations, including habitat selection and thresholds that influence occurrence and density (e.g., % grass, % woody cover, % development, etc.)
  • Decision Support Tools (DSTs) will be developed to guide future conservation delivery efforts

By John Laux and Dana Varner