Putting the Science to Work

In the following essay you hear from the lead editor of the Science Framework for Conservation and Restoration of the Sagebrush Biome, Part Two: Management Applications. This story summarizes the recently released framework that provides management approaches for applying science and prioritization to sagebrush habitats. 

By Michele Crist, Landscape Ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Fire and Aviation, at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho

In my role as a landscape ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Fire Planning and Fuels Management Division, I conduct fire science including risk assessments and fire simulation modeling, and generally incorporate new scientific research into wildfire management nationally. Early in my career, my research was focused on forested ecosystems. I analyzed the role of fire across large landscapes and the response of wildlife species and their habitats to post-fire conditions over time. This work helped to inform where we need to restore fire to forests and where treatments should be located to protect communities from wildfire. I then worked with the U.S. Geological Survey researching Greater Sage-grouse where my forest ecology world changed to a sagebrush ecology world.  My current position with BLM expanded my work to include the influence of wildfire in sagebrush ecosystems.

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The role of fire in sagebrush country is still present but so very different from forests. Here’s why: In just over two decades wildfire trends have changed significantly across the western United States. Shrub and grass dominated lands (rangelands) that historically rarely burned are now burning at an unprecedented rate. Over the past two decades, 56% of acres that burned were rangelands and 44% that burned were forested lands across all land ownerships in the U.S.  For Department of Interior lands, 73% of all acres burned were in rangelands. This uncharacteristic trend is primarily due to a high frequency and extent of wildfire occurring in sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin.

The reason fire is now a major threat for sagebrush ecosystems is primarily due to the increasing dominance of the “invasive grass-fire cycle” especially in warmer and drier sagebrush ecosystems. Non-native fire prone grasses like cheatgrass, invade native sagebrush ecosystems, dry out early in the spring and ignite easily, and increase fire occurrence and spread. Cheatgrass can rapidly recover after fire, outcompeting natives, while native species like sagebrush do not recover and eventually disappear across the landscape. The result is an ongoing cycle of high rates of conversion of sagebrush to non-native, grassland communities that continue to spread across landscapes and promote frequent fire. 

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Part Two Released

To address uncharacteristic fire and other threats to sagebrush ecosystems, experts across the range came together to create the Science Framework for Conservation and Restoration of the Sagebrush Biome. Today, I’m delighted to announce the recent release of Part Two of this Framework! This second body of work provides a transparent, ecologically-responsible approach for making policy and management decisions for America’s sagebrush country. The framework was developed by an interagency editorial team consisting of the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a suite of authors from other federal and state agencies and universities. This publication provides a game plan for where conservation and restoration activities are most likely to be effective and which management actions are most likely to succeed. 

For some background, Part One of the Science Framework provides the “why” and “where” management actions should be focused across the sagebrush biome. The newly released Part Two takes it a step further by providing “what” management strategies work best “where”, and “how” to apply the latest science in management based on the threats. Scientific references and links to datasets throughout Part One and Two also provide land managers access to relevant scientific information for decision-making processes.

Part Two Includes Nine Different Topics:

Adaptive Management and Monitoring - Provides the best approaches to assess the condition and trends of sagebrush ecosystems, as well as measure the effectiveness of management actions and change tactics where needed over time.  

Climate Adaptation – Climate is always changing so we need to adapt our management actions to the changing ecological trends of sagebrush ecosystems. These strategies help sustain the ecosystem services we depend on and maintain wildlife species habitats.

Wildfire and Vegetation Management – Because wildfire trends in sagebrush ecosystems have changed, we provide a new fire risk assessment along with innovative management approaches for fire and vegetation management in sagebrush habitats.

Non-native Invasive Plant Management – A focus on invasives management could help break this non-native grass/fire cycle currently taking over our sagebrush ecosystems. Here, we provide management strategies to prevent or limit invasions of non-native plants and uncharacteristic fire.

Application of National Seed Strategy Concepts – In order to combat invasive plants, management considerations are offered for selecting native plants that are more resistant to invasives and grow best in different soil types, precipitation levels, and temperatures.

Livestock Grazing Management – Improper grazing regimes have a strong influence on the ability of sagebrush ecosystems to maintain their resilience to disturbance and resistance to invasive plants. This section offers state and transition models describing pathways these ecosystems could take based on different levels and timing of grazing. 

Wild Horse and Burro Considerations – The public at large enjoys seeing wildhorses and burros in the wild. Yet, many populations are currently above sustainable population levels in our sagebrush landscapes. We offer different management strategies based on sagebrush resilience to disturbance and resistance to invasive plants for where these populations are currently too high.

Integration and Trade Offs – This was the hardest section to write. We labored to combine all these previous topics into this section and consider different options for integrating the topics above into management scenarios. This section also discusses the trade-offs and how best to deal with “uncertainty” when making decisions.

For me, this entire framework helps us move beyond a one-management-size-fits-all approach. There will always be regional and site-specific nuances across the sagebrush biome with different threats occurring in different areas. This framework provides a way to look at the landscape as a whole and then address the needs at regional levels. The Science Framework is the first over-arching, conservation plan of its kind that spans an entire ecosystem across the western U.S. It provides the path forward for putting the science to work in a comprehensive and collaborative approach. We need to focus our management strategies on conserving our sagebrush before too much is lost and it is too late.

Related Publications

Science framework for conservation and restoration of the sagebrush biome: Linking the Department of the Interior’s Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy to long-term strategic conservation actions

Chambers, Jeanne C. ; Beck, J.L. ; Bradford, J.B. ; Bybee, J. ; Campbell, S. ; Carlson, J. ; Christiansen, T.J. ; Clause, K.J. ; Collins, G. ; Crist, M.R. ; Dinkins, J.B. ; Doherty, K.E. ; Edwards, F. ; Espinosa, S. ; Griffin, K.A. ; Griffin, P. ; Haas, Jessica R. ; Hanser, S.E. ; Havlina, D.W. ; Henke, K.F. ; Hennig, J.D. ; Joyce, Linda A. ; Kilkenny, Francis F. ; Kulpa, S.M. ; Kurth, L.L. ; Maestas, J.D. ; Manning, M. ; Mayer, K.E. ; Mealor, B.A. ; McCarthy, C. ; Pellant, M. ; Perea, M.A. ; Prentice, K.L. ; Pyke, D.A. ; Wiechman, L.A. ; Wuenschel, A. , 2017

Hannah Nikonow