Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Occupancy and abundance of predator and prey: implications of the fire-cheatgrass cycle in sagebrush ecosystems.

Abstract

Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) ecosystems are declining due to biological invasions and changes in fire regimes. Understanding how ecosystem changes influence functionally important animals such as ecosystem engineers is essential to conserve ecological functions. American badgers (Taxidea taxus) are an apex predator and ecosystem engineer in that they redistribute large amounts of soil within sagebrush ecosystems. Piute ground squirrels (Urocitellus mollis) are also an ecosystem engineer as well as an essential prey resource for many predators, including badgers. Our research objective was to evaluate the relative importance of biological invasions and fire, abiotic factors, and biotic factors on badgers and ground squirrels. We sampled 163 1-ha plots during April-June across a gradient of burn histories within a 1962 km2 study area in southern Idaho, USA. At each plot, we characterized occupancy of ground squirrels and badgers and relative abundance of ground squirrels. Additionally, we characterized soil texture, climate, connectivity and dispersal potential, fire frequency, grazing, and cover of many plant species including a highly invasive exotic annual grass (cheatgrass; Bromus tectorum). We used an integrated approach to evaluate competing hypotheses concerning factors influencing occupancy and abundance. Results suggested that occupancy of ground squirrels was positively associated with long-term precipitation, dispersal potential, and fine-grained soil. Abundance of ground squirrels was positively associated with fine-grained soil, but negatively associated with cheatgrass, fire frequency, agriculture, and shrub cover. Badger occupancy was positively associated with ground squirrel occupancy and agriculture, which indicated affinity to prey. Our results provide insight into the relative influence of abiotic and biotic factors on predator and prey, and highlight how effects change across different population parameters. Our research suggests that widespread environmental change within sagebrush ecosystems, especially the fire-cheatgrass cycle (e.g., invasion of cheatgrass and increased fire frequency) and human land disturbances, are directly and indirectly influencing ground squirrels and badgers. However, we also found evidence that efforts to mitigate these stressors, for example, establishing bunchgrasses postfire, may provide targeted conservation strategies that promote these species and thus preserve the burrowing and trophic functions they provide.