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The burrowing owl // Photo: Jennie Horvat

Manitoba's endangered burrowing owl. // Photo: Jennie Horvat

For grassland bird conservation, it’s not the size that matters

University of Manitoba researchers have published new research that can help us save grassland birds, whose populations have declined more severely than species of any other Canadian ecosystem.

Habitat loss is the usual culprit in such scenarios, but U of M graduate student Jessica Lockhart and professor Nicola Koper found that this time, it wasn’t.

Working in southwest Manitoba, they found that ever-decreasing prairie habitat was less to blame than how many edges cut through the existing habitat; this results in the breaking apart of habitat, an effect known as habitat fragmentation. These edges could stem from roads, industrial development, or a patch of cropland laid among the natural grasses.

“It was surprising to find this,” says Lockhart, a master’s student in the U of M’s Natural Resources Institute and lead author of the study. “Studies conducted in other ecosystems suggest that impacts from habitat loss are generally much stronger than those from fragmentation but in this case we found the opposite.”

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