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Limits on the time and financial resources available for monitoring efforts, coupled with the complexities of natural resources and stakeholders, are challenges in resource monitoring. To help address these and related challenges, the USGS Monitoring Team (MT) has linked conceptual monitoring specialists with habitat and wildlife biologists to inform and develop creative, scientifically defensible approaches for monitoring the status and trends of populations and habitats across the WLCI region. This collaboration has led to spatially balanced monitoring designs that will make it possible to interpret conditions across the WLCI region and a mechanism for integrating species’ distributions and population responses...
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In the WLCI region, the quality and condition of sagebrush steppe is a concern given the extent of rangewide land-use change, habitat conversion, and rapid energy development in sagebrush systems. Three migratory songbird species are considered near-obligates of sagebrush shrublands: Brewer’s and sagebrush sparrows and sage thrasher, all of which are designated Species of Great Conservation Need in Wyoming (Wyoming Game and Fish Department, 2010) and nest in Green River Basin. In collaboration with the WGFD, we initiated this multiphase project to address the WLCI management need to identify the condition and distribution of sagebrush songbird habitats and key drivers of change in those habitats. In Phase I (2008...
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Muddy Creek, a tributary to the Little Snake River, is a semi-arid catchment that drains about 1,200 mi2 in south-central Wyoming. The drainage basin is characterized as a sagebrush steppe ecosystem. The area is undergoing energy exploration and development, including conventional natural gas wells and coalbed natural gas wells. Geologic formations that underlie the drainage basin include soluble marine shales, which are a natural source of dissolved solids (for example, sodium, chloride, and sulfate) and Se. As a result, the water quality of Muddy Creek is naturally high in dissolved constituents, including Se. The WDEQ has listed chloride and Se as impairments to aquatic life for Muddy Creek. Dissolved solids...
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Restoration and maintenance of aspen communities is a BLM priority in the Little Mountain Ecosystem, and the USGS has been working with the BLM and the WGFD to monitor aspen stands in that area as part of its WLCI Effectiveness Monitoring work. LANDFIRE and ReGAP maps are considered the best spatial products for representing aspen distribution at regional and landscape scales; however, these products were not designed to support decisions at localized scales, such as that of the Little Mountain Ecosystem. In 2010, this study filled a critical information gap with production of a model (fine-scale map) that delineates aspen distribution for the Little Mountain Ecosystem. To accomplish this, we used classification...
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Migratory ungulates are susceptible to effects of development along their migration corridors. For example, impermeable barriers such as tall fences preclude movements of migratory populations. Most forms of development in the West, however, represent semipermeable barriers, and their influences on migration remain unclear. This study entails using fine-scale mule deer movement data to evaluate the influence of anthropogenic barriers on the animals’ migratory behaviors. Our efforts include evaluating the rate of travel, duration of stopovers, and route fidelity of deer migrating across a gradient of development in Southwest Wyoming. In FY2014, we analyzed mule deer movement metrics and use of migration stopover...
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This work centers on using remote-sensing tools and protocols for monitoring long-term changes in vegetation cover across the WLCI region. This information is crucial for understanding patterns of change within sagebrush habitats, including historical changes and potential trajectories of future changes. Our study targets five components of vegetation cover: all shrubs, sagebrush shrubs, herbaceous vegetation, litter, and bare ground, which we quantify by one-percent intervals. Based on samples collected both in the field and from satellite imagery, the USGS can evaluate and quantify the amount and distribution of long-term changes in the target components. This work and its associated products represent the operational...
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Ongoing energy development in the northern Green River structural basin necessitates information about groundwater resources that supply water to the basin’s wells. Many human activities in that area, including pumping water from the aquifers for agricultural, domestic, and industrial use, and penetration of the heterogeneous (that is, complex intertonguing of layers) aquifers (see Bartos and others, 2015) during deeper drilling for natural gas, have the potential to impact the aquifer system that supplies water to most wells in the area. We initiated this study in FY2012 as “A Retrospective Assessment of Groundwater Occurrence in the Normally Pressured Lance Formation and a Field Reconnaissance of Existing Water...
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Since 1990, more than 2 million dollars has been spent on habitat-restoration and enhancement projects in the Little Mountain Ecosystem. Many of these efforts have focused on restoring aspen communities to maintain or improve water quality and to enhance ungulate habitat. During 2009, biologists from the WGFD Green River Regional Office established long-term monitoring plots on Little Mountain to evaluate whether the increased number of ungulates using those stands is in balance with targets set for aspen regeneration. The WGFD is collecting data for developing an index of live to dead trees. The USGS is supporting this effort by measuring stand composition to study herbivory patterns at locations associated with...
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The shrub-steppe system that dominates the WLCI region separates the northern and southern Rocky Mountains; thus, forested areas in the WLCI region are limited. In the Green River Basin of southwest Wyoming, riparian and aspen woodlands comprise only a small fraction of the landscape, but many agencies perceive them as priority habitats because they make important contributions to landscape connectivity and biodiversity at local, regional, and geographic scales. Not only do aspen communities support a unique and diverse suite of species in the WLCI region, they provide important forage and cover for ungulates, help maintain headwater stream function, and they may serve as stepping stones for migratory forest birds...
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The New Fork River, located in the northeastern part of the WLCI study area, drains about 1,200 mi2 of land in southeastern Wyoming. Currently, it is an area of active energy exploration and development, including development of conventional natural-gas wells. This study was conducted to support the Sublette County Conservation District in ascertaining effects on water quality in the New Fork River drainage associated with energy development and pipeline crossings of the river in the PAPA. The Sublette County Conservation District (SCCD) collects macroinvertebrate (aquatic insect) samples at eight sites within the PAPA. For this study, the USGS collected periphyton (algae), bed sediment, pebble count, discharge,...
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The rapid expansion of natural gas development in Southwest Wyoming has raised concerns about how that development affects key wildlife species and habitats. The overall goal of this project is to determine how the presence and intensity of oil and natural gas development are affecting habitat and water quality, and how they, in turn, can influence the presence and abundance of native fish species. The project addresses the WLCI management needs to identify the condition and distribution of key wildlife species and habitats, and species habitat requirements, and to evaluate wildlife and livestock responses to development. Our approach is a comparative study examining subwatersheds affected by different levels of...
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The mixed mountain shrub community is one of the WLCI priority habitat types and is associated with numerous WLCI conservation priority areas and habitat projects. The current extent and condition of mountain shrub patches is unknown in most of the WLCI region; thus, trends in their condition and mechanisms driving those conditions are also unknown. Ongoing monitoring data from selected stands indicate an overall decline in this community type. Hypotheses as to what is causing the decline range from persistent drought to herbivory and, possibly, factors associated with increased energy development. Our long-term objectives are to measure and map the current conditions and distribution of mixed mountain shrub communities...
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To evaluate habitat conditions and trends, land management agencies in the WLCI region require objective, detailed information describing the characteristics of vegetation dynamics, such as changes in biomass, species composition, or the timing of green-up. Assessing the efficacy of management activities and the duration of their effectiveness has been problematic due to the lack of high-resolution spatial and temporal satellite imagery capable of revealing patterns in vegetation responses and changes in forage production. Vegetation indices, such as the normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) derived from satellite imagery, can be used to monitor seasonal and interannual changes in plant phenology and biomass...
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Salinity is the sum of dissolved salts in water and can have major effects on surface-water quality in semi-arid regions such as southwestern Wyoming. High levels of salinity can make water unsuitable for wildlife or irrigation. A wide variety of processes influence the salinity of surface waters, including mobilization of salts or concentration of salts already in the water. Disturbance of soils that contain natural salts below the surface can lead to salt mobilization as the exposed salts come into increased contact with water from rain, snowmelt, or streamflow. Because soil disturbance is inevitable with energy development, increased stream salinity is a potential concern in developed watersheds. In 2005, energy...
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Consistent with the National Park Service’s philosophy, Fossil Butte National Monument is managed to protect the Monument’s resources and provide opportunities for public enjoyment. Fossil Butte National Monument was created primarily to protect paleontological resources; however, the mandate of the agency’s enabling legislation “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein…” also recognizes the importance of natural process, native wildlife species, and the habitats on which they depend. Sizeable herds of elk spend part of the fall and winter within the Monument’s boundaries and provide numerous viewing opportunities for visitors. Collaboration among the USGS, the National...
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The spread of cheatgrass was identified by the WLCI LPDTs as a serious threat to maintaining important wildlife habitat. Team members also expressed interest in knowing whether past habitat treatments (prescribed burns, mowing, herbicide applications) resist or promote the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive plant species. Other questions address whether or not soil biological crusts can resist the spread of cheatgrass. Since 1990, numerous habitat-restoration and enhancement projects have been implemented in the Little Mountain Ecosystem (LME), many of which entailed prescribed burns. To evaluate annual variation of cheatgrass density on treated and untreated plots and to determine the ability of soil biological...
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Weather and climate influence plant productivity, which in turn influences wildlife habitats and behaviors (Monteith and others, 2011). Monitoring plant phenology (such as the timing of green-up, flowering, or senescence) reveals patterns that can serve as indicators of habitat condition and quality. Climate change may alter phenology patterns and plant species composition, which could affect the availability and quality of forage and cover for WLCI species of concern, such as elk, mule deer, pronghorn, greater sage-grouse, and livestock. This project entails monitoring plant phenology to address the WLCI management need for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of habitat-management activities. Our work also...
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The WLCI has supported numerous aspen habitat treatments in the Sierra Madre Range of south-central Wyoming to reduce conifer cover, increase aspen densities, and diversify stand dynamics. WLCI partners are seeking information on how aspen and under-canopy vegetation have responded to those treatments, the relationship between soil chemistry and mechanical removal of conifers, and the response of invasive species to soil and litter disturbance associated with mechanical removal. To address these and similar questions, in FY2008 the USGS developed a study in the Sierra Madre Range to investigate aspen regeneration, herbivory, and growth rate, and to document interactions between soil disturbance and under-canopy...
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The Little Mountain Ecosystem in southwestern Wyoming has been identified as a priority area for conservation by the BLM and the WGFD. The woodlands of the Little Mountain Ecosystem have been affected by multiple disturbance types over the last 20 years. Active management of these ecologically important woodlands has sought to rejuvenate decadent aspen stands and reduce conifer expansion in successional aspen stands through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. The area also experienced wildfires and multiple drought years over the last decade. The BLM Rock Springs Field Office asked the USGS to conduct research that provides baseline information on the Little Mountain Ecosystem woodlands. This project is designed...
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A wide variety of human activities has the potential to contaminate groundwater. In addition, naturally occurring constituents in groundwater can limit the suitability of that water for some uses. Baseline groundwater-quality data can be used to facilitate analysis of water-quality trends over time and to understand the effects of human activities. Such information is an important tool for protecting groundwater resources that are crucial for drinking water and other uses. The USGS is working in cooperation with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality on the Wyoming Groundwater Quality Monitoring Network, the goal of which is to collect water-quality samples at 20-30 wells within each of 33 priority areas...