Gregory and students study habitat

BOWLING GREEN, O.—Research being conducted by a BGSU environmental science faculty member could someday benefit the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, which was recently listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In April, Dr. Andrew Gregory, School of Earth, Environment and Society, and three of his students traveled to Gove County, Kansas, where they trapped 80 prairie chickens, collected DNA samples and hung GPS backpacks on the birds before releasing them back into the wild. Gregory is working with Kansas Wildlife Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Geologic Survey Kansas State University Cooperative Extension Unit, on a study to see how energy development impacts wildlife populations.

“For many years we have noted avoidance of pumping stations by Lesser Prairie-Chickens. While many theories exist, we have never truly been able to understand why,” Gregory said.

Along with capturing the chickens, Gregory and his students also recorded environmental conditions on their study site, which has 1,574 active oil and gas pumping stations that also produce noise. The goal was to monitor how the sound spreads across the landscape.

“The low frequency sound of the pumping stations may disrupt the prairie chickens’ booming sounds so they cannot communicate with each other to mate, so they avoided those areas,” said environmental science major Tom Lipp.

Gregory’s research comprises two goals. One is to look at how the noise is impacting the mating and reproduction of the prairie chickens. The other is to study the hybridization between the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and its closest cousin, the Greater Prairie-Chicken, whose habitats overlap. One theory is that the chickens are avoiding the noise from the pumping stations and that the low frequencies they use when vocalizing and calling to each other during their mass mating ritual, called a lek, aren’t being heard over the noise on the landscape.

“I started looking into the impacts of the human-made noise and, sure enough, there’s a lot of evidence that suggests that birds or any wildlife will change their habitat use and it has some impacts on their reproductive success,” Gregory said.

The GPS backpacks are recording 12 locations per hour, so Gregory’s team is gathering a good amount of data on how the prairie chickens are moving and using space on the landscape.

“Because of the intensity of oil and gas on this landscape, they really don’t have an area where they can just leave.  So it becomes an interesting question of how are they dealing with it or what impact is it having on their reproductive success, habitat use, longevity and space use,” Gregory said.

The students who went on the trip gained valuable field experience that will help shape their future careers.

“It was a great opportunity to get some experience doing something like this. I learned about all the devices and field methods; it was a great learning experience in that aspect,” Lipp said.

“I have never conducted scientific research in the way we did in Kansas,” said environmental policy and analysis major Sam Rubadue. “It was definitely a learning experience to do something first-hand rather than always being in a classroom.”

Gregory has at least another three or four years of work on this study, which will help the Western Alliance of Fish and Wildlife Agencies determine what mitigation requirements to impose on companies that want to develop on the land and the regulations they’ll have to abide by.

“Given the recent listing of the species under the Endangered Species Act, this research is of critical conservation importance,” he said. “Also, the sound analysis is the first attempt to ever link components of a wild species’ fitness to human-produced noise.”