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New Science Framework Provides Basis for Conservation and Restoration of Sagebrush

Posted by Jessica Brewen and Jennifer Hayes, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Forest Service in Conservation Forestry
Jul 29, 2021
Sagebrush ecosystem in north central Nevada
This big sagebrush ecosystem in north central Nevada has converted to cheatgrass and other annual invaders. Photo credit: Nolan Preece.

“Resilience” is the ability to recover from change, or when you think about landscapes, the ability to recover from disturbances like wildfires. A new model takes the idea of resilience and applies it to the natural environment, specifically, to sagebrush. This resilience model is one of the core elements of the new Science Framework for Conservation and Restoration of the Sagebrush Biome (Part 2).

Developed by state, federal, and university collaborators, the Science Framework provides a transparent, ecologically defensible approach for making land management decisions that reduce threats to sagebrush landscapes and the species that depend upon them, like the Greater sage-grouse.

“The Science Framework is an excellent example of state, federal and university scientists working together,” said USDA Forest Service Research Ecologist Jeanne Chambers, a lead author of the Framework. “The science-based approach that we collectively developed will help ensure that management actions are designed to benefit both the sagebrush ecosystem and the species it supports.”

The Science Framework describes emerging strategies that land managers can use to manage sagebrush landscapes, set priorities, and plan on-the-ground restoration and conservation actions.

The Science Framework is intended to link the Department of the Interior’s Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy with long-term conservation and restoration actions on sagebrush landscapes. By considering elevation, climate, and soils, land managers can get a much clearer understanding of the impacts that given activities might have upon specific locations within the sagebrush biome. Chambers and her colleagues studied these relationships in a series of field trials in Utah and Nevada.

For example, higher elevation sagebrush networks are typically moist and productive, and as a result, used to burn relatively often. These fire-tolerant landscapes have higher resilience and resistance to invasive species. In contrast, lower elevation sagebrush ecosystems are drier, slower-growing, less fire tolerant, and have a harder time resisting species invasions after disturbance.

One such threat is cheatgrass, a non-native invasive species that enters disturbed areas and quickly expands after wildfires through rapid growth and prolific seed production. Cheatgrass can replace the native sagebrush species that creatures like the Greater sage-grouse depend upon for survival.

Today, lower elevation sagebrush systems with low resistance to cheatgrass are burning more frequently and over larger areas, which means we may need to look at management of those systems differently.

A wildfire burning through a Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystem
A wildfire burns through a Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystem with a cheatgrass understory. Invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass are among the primary issues in the western part of the sagebrush landscape. Photo by Douglas J. Shinneman.
Category/Topic: Conservation Forestry

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Kiyah Luna Sadie Reed
Apr 16, 2019

Not only is this a well explained and layered factual presentation to shed light on a significant, and specific, decline and/or seemingly possible peril of two much needed natural species due to reduction of habitat; It is also clearly understandable information to local land owners who are directly impacted in these specific regions. This magnifies the effects of one natural species that effects so many others down the line. Without the invaluable research and data provided on behalf of all environmental agencies working together in tandem, and the resources, like this, given by all these agencies to land owners and the common public alike, preemptive actions would not be understood, nor accessible, leaving much needed education in absence, beyond the reach of thwarting the consequences of losing a much needed environmental necessity (Which we may be only approaching the cusp of understanding the vastness of the future effects of).
Thank you to all the researchers, environmentalists and supporters of each alike, for extending your knowledge to people who care about our endless environmental predicaments.
Knowledge is power.
Thank you for your time and dedication to conservation and environmental health.
Nature deserves more of people like you.