Large-scale wildfire reduces population growth in a peripheral population of sage-grouse.
Background: Drastic increases in wildfire size and frequency threaten western North American sagebrush (Artemisia L. spp.) ecosystems. At relatively large spatial scales, wildfire facilitates type conversion of sagebrush-dominated plant communities to monocultures of invasive annual grasses (e.g., Bromus tectorum L.). Annual grasses provide fine fuels that promote fire spread, contributing to a positive grass-fire feedback cycle that affects most sagebrush ecosystems, with expected habitat loss for resident wildlife populations. Greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus Bonaparte, 1827) are sagebrush obligate species that are indicators of sagebrush ecosystem function because they rely on different components of sagebrush ecosystems to meet seasonal life history needs. Because wildfire cannot be predicted, chronic impacts of wildfire on sage-grouse populations have been largely limited to correlative studies. Thus, evidence from well-designed experiments is needed to understand the specific mechanisms by which wildfire is detrimental to sage-grouse population dynamics. Results: Following a significant wildfire event in the southwest periphery of sage-grouse range, we implemented a before-after-control-impact study with long-term paired (BACIP) datasets of male sage-grouse surveyed from traditional breeding grounds (leks) within and outside the wildfire boundary. We estimated sage-grouse population rate of change in apparent abundance (λ ^) at burned and unburned areas before and after wildfire and derived BACIP ratios, which provide controlled evidence of wildfire impact. We found that λ^ at leks within the wildfire boundary decreased approximately 16% relative to leks at control sites. Furthermore, we estimated a 98.5% probability that the observed change in λ^ could be attributed to the wildfire. Conclusions: We demonstrated adverse wildfire impacts on sage-grouse population growth using an experimental BACIP design, which disentangled the effect of wildfire disturbance from natural population fluctuations. Our results underscore the importance of active and comprehensive management actions immediately following wildfire (i.e., seeding coupled with planting sagebrush), that might offset short-term impacts of wildfire by timing rapid recovery of sagebrush to meet short-term species' habitat requirements. Burned leks likely have substantial immediate impacts that may extend beyond wildfire boundaries, especially if critical source habitats are removed. Such impacts could fragment habitat and disrupt connectivity, thereby affecting larger populations and possibly contributing to more widespread declines in sage-grouse populations.