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Towards a mechanistic understanding of human‐induced rapid environmental change: a case study linking energy development, nest predation and predators

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Demographic consequences of human‐induced rapid environmental change (HIREC) have been widely documented for many populations. The mechanisms underlying such patterns, however, are rarely investigated and yet are critical to understand for effective conservation and management. We investigated the mechanisms underlying reduced avian nest survival with intensification of natural gas development, an increasing source of human‐induced rapid environmental change globally. We tested the hypothesis that energy development increased the local activity of important nest predator species, thereby elevating nest predation rates. During 2011–2012, we surveyed predators and monitored 668 nests of Brewer's sparrows Spizella breweri (BRSP), sagebrush sparrows Artemisiospiza nevadensis (SASPs) and sage thrashers Oreoscoptes montanus (SATHs) breeding at twelve sites spanning a gradient of habitat loss from energy development in western Wyoming, USA. Nine species, representing four mammalian and three avian families, were video‐recorded depredating eggs and nestlings. Important nest predator species differed across songbird species, despite similar nesting habitats. Approximately 75% of depredation events were by rodents. Consistent with our predictions, detections of most rodent nest predators increased with surrounding habitat loss due to natural gas development, which was associated with increased probability of nest predation for our three focal bird species. An altered nest predator assemblage was therefore at least partly responsible for elevated avian nest predation risk in areas with more surrounding energy development. Synthesis and applications. We demonstrate one mechanism, that is the local augmentation of predators, by which human‐induced rapid environmental change can influence the demography of local populations. Given the accelerating trajectory of global energy demands, an important next step will be to understand why the activity and/or abundance of rodent predators increased with surrounding habitat loss from energy development activities.
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Keywords: anthropogenic disturbance; birds; energy development; habitat loss; nest predation; predator–prey; sagebrush steppe; species interactions

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2015

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