Grasslands are inherently dynamic systems having developed with frequent disturbance from fire and grazing that varies in space and time to create heterogeneity. Today, many management practices emphasize the even use of grasslands by grazers and either no fire or uniform fires, resulting in grasslands that lack the variability in plant structure and composition to support the entire suite of grassland biodiversity. Previous research has suggested that the reintroduction of variable disturbance may be among the best conservation strategies for grassland birds, as these practices promote diversity and abundance of many species. However, the reintroduction of heterogeneity is taking place in the context of the continued development of grasslands for energy production, and the utility of heterogeneity based management practices may decline in fragmented landscapes. We investigated how fragmentation from oil and gas may constrain management efforts to promote biodiversity by evaluating changes in bird abundance with distance from roads and conventional oil wells across a gradient of times since fire. We found that time since fire was the primary driver of grassland bird distribution, with dickcissels, eastern meadowlark and grasshopper sparrows occurring in all vegetation patches, while Henslow's sparrows primarily occurred in patches that were greater than 13 months post-fire and upland sandpipers were mostly detected in recent burns. Further, Henslow's sparrows avoided oil wells for considerable distances, while eastern meadowlark was more abundant in areas close to oil wells in vegetation patches that were one-year post-fire. Grasshopper sparrows avoided roads in recent burns and dickcissels, and eastern meadowlarks were attracted to roads in patches that were recently burned and one-year post-fire, respectively. The restoration of heterogeneous fire regimes will benefit bird communities by creating variable vegetation structure that can support multiple grassland bird species; however, energy development has the potential to fragment grasslands for some species.
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Vol. 2019 • No. 1