Natural Resources, School of


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Berger, D.J.; Lusk, J.J.; Powell, L.A.; Carroll, J.P. Exploring Old Data with New Tricks: Long-Term Monitoring Indicates Spatial and Temporal Changes in Populations of Sympatric Prairie Grouse in the Nebraska Sandhills. Diversity 2023, 15, 114. https://


Open access.


The contiguous grasslands of the Sandhills region in Nebraska, USA, provide habitat for two sympatric, grassland-obligate species of grouse, the greater prairie-chicken (Tympanuchus cupido pinnatus) and the plains sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus jamesi). Collectively referred to as prairie grouse, these birds are monitored and managed jointly by wildlife practitioners who face the novel challenge of conserving historically allopatric species in shared range. We reconstructed region-wide and route-specific prairie grouse population trends in the Sandhills, using a 63-year timeseries of breeding ground counts aggregated from old reports and paper archives. Our objective was to repurpose historical data collected for harvest management to address questions pertinent to the conservation of prairie grouse, species whose populations have declined precipitously throughout their respective ranges. Because we cannot change the sampling protocol of historical data to answer new questions, we applied 3 different methods of data analysis—traditional regional mean counts used to adjust harvest regulations, spatially implicit, site-specific counts, and spatially explicit trends. Prairie-chicken populations have increased since the 1950s, whereas sharp-tailed grouse populations have remained stable or slightly declined. However, each species exhibited unique shifts in abundance and distribution over time, and regional indices masked important aspects of population change. Our findings indicate that legacy data have the capacity to tell new stories apart from the questions they were collected to answer. By integrating concepts from landscape ecology—a discipline that emerged decades after the collection of our count data began—we demonstrate the potential of historical data to address questions of modern-day conservation concern, using prairie grouse as a case study.