Effects of Biofuels Production on Biodiversity and Landscape Connectivity
Increased production of bioenergy crops may pose difficult challenges for wildlife communities and biodiversity conservation. Little data exists to rank the biodiversity values of various biofuel feedstocks, particularly for leading candidates for bioenergy production in the Midwest like Miscanthus x giganteus and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). This project is investigating these biodiversity values. In addition, it is determining how biofuel crops affect animal movements and landscape connectivity by collecting data from the Energy Farm at the University of Illinois where Miscanthus, switchgrass, restored mixed prairie and corn-soybean rotation exist in blocks.
Our current research focus is on understanding how biofuels affect animal dispersal and landscape connectivity. Dispersal is crucial for maintaining demographic connectivity and preserving genetic diversity in fragmented agroecosystems. In 2013, we initiated a replicated field experiment using meadow voles as a model species in which we are evaluating the degree of spatial connectivity provided by four biofuel crops—corn, miscanthus, switchgrass, and mixed grassland. Movements of uniquely marked individuals are tracked via repeated live trapping. Our experiment represents the first evaluation of biofuels and connectivity for wildlife. Future experiments will test whether the inclusion of permeable corridors can facilitate movement across otherwise inhospitable crop habitat.
An emerging issue for wildlife species in agroecosystems is the expected growth in production of biofuels. Meeting the proposed increase for bioenergy crops could pose serious challenges for biodiversity conservation. In 2012, we evaluated the habitat value of bioenergy crops to wildlife in the Midwestern region. Our research was conducted at the University of Illinois EBI Energy Farm and focused on monitoring species diversity and abundances of songbirds and small mammals in plots of mixed prairie, switchgrass, corn, and Miscanthus. Mixed prairie and switchgrass habitats supported similar communities of songbirds and small mammals, whereas corn and Miscanthus had similar communities that were relatively impoverished. Birds nested almost exclusively in switchgrass and prairie habitat. Grassland mammals also avoided corn and Miscanthus. Our research indicates switchgrass monocultures represent a wildlife-friendly biofuel crop that has habitat value similar to mixed prairie. In contrast, the value of Miscanthus to vertebrate biodiversity in the Midwest region is low and similar to that of corn. In 2012, we also initiated the only field experiment in the world dedicated to evaluating how biofuel crops will affect movements of wildlife and landscape connectivity.
Schooley’s group conducted the first evaluation of the habitat quality of Miscanthus for wildlife in North America. Their monitoring of songbirds and mammals suggests Miscanthus and corn have lower habitat quality compared to that of switchgrass and mixed prairie.
Published in 2013
Ecological Correlates of Stress for a Habitat Generalist in a Biofuels Landscape, S.L. Fredebaugh-Siller, C.D. Suski, Z.C. Zuckerman, R.L. Schooley, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 91(12), pp. 853-858, dx.doi.org/10.1139/cjz-2013-0157, October 15, 2013.