Plague is a bacterial (Yersinia pestis) disease that causes epizootic die-offs in black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) populations in the North American Great Plains. Through their grazing and burrowing, prairie dogs modify vegetation and landscape structure on their colonies in ways that affect other grassland species. Plague epizootics on prairie dog colonies can have indirect effects on species associated with colonies. The mountain plover (Charadrius montanus) preferentially nests on black-tailed prairie dog colonies and is thus negatively impacted by the loss of prairie dogs. We studied the effects of plague and colony spatial characteristics on the occupancy of 81 prairie dog colonies by nesting plovers in Phillips County, Montana, during a 13-year period (1995–2007). We used a robust design patch occupancy model to investigate how colony occupancy and extinction and colonization rates were affected by plague history, colony size, and colony shape. Here extinction and colonization rates refer to the probability that a colony loses/gains plovers in a subsequent nesting season, given that it had/lacked plovers in that breeding season. Colony occupancy was best explained by a model with no annual variation or plague effects. Colony extinction rates were driven by a combination of a quadratic of colony area, a 3-year plague response, and a measure of colony shape. Conversely, colonization rates were best explained by a model with a 4-year plague response. The estimated annual proportion of colonies occupied by plovers was 0.75 (95% confidence interval = 0.57–0.87). Estimated extinction probability ranged from a low of 0.07 (standard error [SE] = 0.02) in 2002 to a high of 0.25 (SE = 0.03) in 1995; colonization probability ranged from 0.24 (SE = 0.05) in 2006 to 0.35 (SE = 0.05) in 2000. Our results highlight how a bird that depends on prairie dogs for nesting habitat responds to plague history and other spatial characteristics of the colony. Ultimately, this information will broaden our understanding of the impact of plague on species other than the host.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/stephen_dinsmore/48/