Building a Framework for the Sage

Some People of the Sage work on ’big picture’ conservation and restoration of sagebrush landscapes. This featured individual looks at sagebrush through satellite imagery and conceptual models as well as what's happening on-the-ground. Her early professional career had her covered in sagebrush gumbo in a similar fashion to Britney Zell (featured earlier in this People of the Sage series) and she still makes time to get out into the sagebrush and work with those directly involved in managing this landscape.

Essay by Jeanne Chambers, Ph.D, Research Ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and Adjunct Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno

My first job as a student in general studies at Idaho State University was that of a range technician for the Humboldt National Forest (which would later be combined with the Toiyabe National Forest).  I was stationed at the Pole Creek Guard Station in the Jarbidge Mountains with a natural resources student from the University of Idaho.  It was a stunning location high in the Great Basin Desert.  

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I quickly learned that the ‘sagebrush sea’ actually encompasses numerous mountain ranges and plateaus and grades into forests, woodlands, deserts, prairies and even riparian ecosystems. To truly appreciate the incredible richness of these areas, you had to drive through the mountain ranges, up onto the plateaus, and across the sagebrush prairies and see them in the different seasons – in winter when they are blanketed by snow, in early spring when the sage-grouse are courting, in early summer when the wildflowers are in bloom, and in fall when the aspen on the hillsides are turning color and the elk are bugling.  

All summer we hiked or rode horses to various locations where we conducted the Forest’s standard vegetation inventories. When I returned to school that fall I knew that I wanted to focus my studies on natural resources. I graduated with a degree in wildlife conservation from Idaho State University, and eventually went on to obtain an M.S. in range science and a Ph. D in Biology/Ecology from Utah State University.

My current research focuses on the diverse ecosystems that comprise the sagebrush biome.  It seeks to increase our understanding of what makes these ecosystems resilient to disturbances, like wildfires, and resistant to invasive annual grasses, like cheatgrass. I work closely with managers and other researchers so that together we can develop the necessary information and strategies to sustain and restore our sagebrush ecosystems.

 In sagebrush ecosystems resilience to wildfire and resistance to cheatgrass increase over elevation gradients, but are modified by aspect and soils. The relative resilience and resistance of a site are closely related to sagebrush ecological types and soil temperature and moisture regimes. Soil moisture availability and plant productivity increase over elevation gradients resulting in greater recovery potential and more competition with cheatgrass. Also, climate suitability to cheatgrass decreases over these same elevation gradients as soil temperatures decrease. Disturbances that increase soil water and nutrients and reduce competition can decrease both resilience and resistance. Understanding these relationships is useful for determining effective management strategies.

In sagebrush ecosystems resilience to wildfire and resistance to cheatgrass increase over elevation gradients, but are modified by aspect and soils. The relative resilience and resistance of a site are closely related to sagebrush ecological types and soil temperature and moisture regimes. Soil moisture availability and plant productivity increase over elevation gradients resulting in greater recovery potential and more competition with cheatgrass. Also, climate suitability to cheatgrass decreases over these same elevation gradients as soil temperatures decrease. Disturbances that increase soil water and nutrients and reduce competition can decrease both resilience and resistance. Understanding these relationships is useful for determining effective management strategies.

Recently, my research on the resilience and resistance of sagebrush ecosystems has been used to develop a strategic multi-scale approach for conservation and restoration of the sagebrush biome. A ‘big picture’ approach is used that allows us to link our understanding of sagebrush ecosystem resilience and resistance with that of wildlife species habitat in order to evaluate the effects of ecosystem threats like invasive annual grasses and wildfire on sagebrush ecosystems and species. This has provided the information needed to assist managers in prioritizing and planning on-the-ground restoration and mitigation actions across the sagebrush biome. It has been linked to the Department of the Interior’s Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy and published in a science framework for conservation and restoration of the sagebrush biome.

Federal land management and natural resource agencies have adopted this framework as a foundation for prioritizing sage-grouse conservation resources and determining effective restoration and management strategies. More details about this framework can be found here and how practitioners are incorporating information on resilience and resistance into project level planning with the help of new field guides and tools can be found here.

In the years since my first summer job, increasing human land use and development coupled with a warming climate have resulted in expansion of invasive annual grasses and larger and more severe wildfires, which are making conservation and restoration efforts increasingly difficult.  To meet this challenge, a variety of highly effective partnerships among ranchers, state and federal agencies, the tribes, non-profit organizations and interested citizens have formed across the sagebrush biome. 

The most rewarding part of my job has been working with these partners to obtain the requisite scientific understanding our sagebrush ecosystems for effective management and implement new approaches for restoring or maintaining their resilience and resistance. My hope is that this work alongside that of so many others will sustain these irreplaceable ecosystems into the future.

ABOVE PRESENTATION: Using Resilience and Resistance Concepts to Develop a Common Science Framework for Managing Threats to Sagebrush Ecosystems and Sagebrush Dependent Species

SPEAKER: Jeanne Chambers, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station

SYMPOSIUM: A Strategic, Multi-scale Approach for Managing Threats to Sagebrush Ecosystems Based on Resilience and Resistance Concepts DATE: February 1, 2018 - Society for Range Management Conference

LEARN MORE: www.PartnersInTheSage.com Courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management and the Intermountain West Joint Venture

 Photo by Evan Barrientos

Photo by Evan Barrientos

Hannah Nikonow