Beck among scientists who receive Top Paper Award from American Ornithological Society

University of Wyoming scientists whose research paper challenges the idea that efforts to mitigate and improve habitat conditions for an “umbrella” species benefit other “background” species have received a prestigious ornithology award.

The team of Jason Carlisle, Anna Chalfoun, Jeff Beck and Kurt Smith is the recipient of the 2019 Painton Award for the paper, titled “Nontarget effects on songbirds from habitat manipulation for Greater Sage-Grouse: Implications for the umbrella species concept,” published in 2018.

UW scientists, from left, Anna Chalfoun, Jeff Beck, Jason Carlisle and Kurt Smith received the Harry R. Painton Award from the American Ornithological Society for the top research paper. (Plum Schultz Photo)

Beck is an ecosystem science and management professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and Smith was an ecosystem science and management graduate student. Carlisle was a Ph.D. student in UW’s Program in Ecology from 2011-17, and Chalfoun is an associate professor of zoology and an assistant unit leader for the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit.

Every two years, the American Ornithological Society presents the Harry R. Painton Award for a paper published during the preceding two years in “The Condor: Ornithological Applications” that has made an exceptional contribution to ornithology.

The UW team will receive the award at the 137th annual meeting of American Ornithology in Anchorage, Alaska, later this summer.

Carlisle was lead author, and Chalfoun, Beck and Smith were co-authors of the paper.

“We are honored to receive the Painton award for our research on sagebrush birds. We hoped that our work would be helpful to wildlife managers in Wyoming who are tasked with conserving both the high-profile species like sage grouse and the lesser-known species like the sagebrush songbirds we studied,” Carlisle said. “However, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that our peers view this work as a noteworthy contribution to the study of birds as a whole.”

The authors addressed what is likely to become an increasingly important issue in avian conservation: Do efforts to mitigate and improve conditions for an “umbrella” species actually benefit other “background” species that share their habitat?

UW’s scientists used a rigorous before-after control-impact design during a three-year period to determine whether management of habitat for the greater sage grouse would benefit a trio of songbird species that co-occur with sage grouse by comparing songbird abundance, nest density and nest success before and after mowing of sagebrush intended to improve brood-rearing habitat for sage grouse.

The authors showed that mowing benefited the non-sagebrush specialist vesper sparrow, but that the sagebrush-steppe-dependent Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher species experienced a different fate. Sage thrasher abundance declined after habitat modification for sage grouse, while nest abundance dropped to zero for both Brewer’s sparrow and sage thrasher in managed (mowed) habitat, according to UW’s researchers.

Ultimately, the UW scientists caution that a more “nuanced” view is needed that considers the varied responses of species that share habitat with so-called umbrella species and that further study is needed to evaluate fully the utility of the umbrella species concept.

“This study provides us a better understanding of which species might fall through the cracks and which may need targeted attention for their conservation,” Chalfoun said.

The Harry R. Painton Award is given in odd-numbered years and consists of a cash prize of $1,000; funds for the award come from a bequest from Painton.

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