Clearing Away Invaders and Restoring the Sage
Woody plant expansion into the wrong places displace the shrubs and grasses, thieve minimal water resources, and decrease a landscape’s resiliency to climate change. This is impacting sage grouse, mule deer, song birds, and many other wildlife species on colossal scales. In a range-wide effort, land managers have collaborated to restore the quality of working sagebrush landscapes by removing conifers across public and private lands.
The Science Guiding Management
Woody plant expansion (mostly juniper species and pinyon pine) is a primary threat driving fragmentation and loss of sagebrush habitats and causing sage-grouse declines. Research: Pinyon and Juniper Encroachment into Sagebrush Ecosystems Impacts Distribution and Survival of Greater Sage-Grouse
Conifers displace the shrubs and understory that are important for sage grouse to thrive. Research: Sage Grouse Groceries: Forb Response to Piñon-Juniper Treatments
Although native, these trees have spread into millions of acres of sagebrush habitat due to a combination of 100 years of fire suppression, historic overgrazing, and climate conditions. Research: Targeted Woodland Removal to Recover At-Risk Grouse and Their Sagebrush-Steppe and Prairie Ecosystems
The water retention in sagebrush systems comes from the increased water storage within snow drifts and delayed release of the melting snow back into the soils. Water delivery is delayed by an average of nine days in sagebrush systems compared to juniper-dominated systems. The implications of this research suggest that conifer removal efforts to support sage grouse restoration also improve water availability in these semi-arid systems. Research: Ecosystem Water Availability in Juniper versus Sagebrush Snow-Dominated Rangelands
From a sage-grouse perspective, new science shows that sage grouse population growth rate is +12% higher with management compared to a population where pinyon juniper expansion remains untreated. Research: Sage Grouse Populations Grow When Conifers are Removed
Around the world, trees are taking over productive shrub and grasslands. Every continent except Antarctica is now experiencing the challenges associated with woodland invasion of valuable grasslands. Here at home, new mapping suggests that from 2011-2017, extent of conifer cover in sagebrush country decreased by 1.6% but despite management woodlands are still expanding into many sagebrush landscapes. Research: Big Picture of Woodland Management in Sagebrush Country
Scientists recently examined whether burning encroaching conifers or removing them mechanically proved more effective for long-term sagebrush-steppe restoration. USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative reached out to the authors in an Ask an Expert series to learn more. This interview is based off of their full publication. Research: To burn or not to burn: Comparing reintroducing fire with cutting an encroaching conifer for conservation of an imperiled shrub‐steppe
Recent science is helping us understand how much conifer invasion is detrimental to sage grouse as well as the spatial extent and degree of conifer invasion. We’re learning that the spatial configuration and size of trees can impact lek activity and that nesting in and near treatments increases through time after conifer removal. Research like this is helping create decision support tools to quantify and track threat reduction.
Here, we communicate about the latest science produced by leading conservation entities. Our focus will be on promoting actionable science and decision support tools.
The sagebrush steppe is a sometimes forgotten part of Montana when spectacular alpine peaks and deep forests dominate the skyline. Fortunately, the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP) came together to advocate for this unique corner of the sagebrush sea. Here at the headwaters of the Missouri River, the sagebrush steppe connects our precious snowpack to headwater tributaries and provides migration routes for wide-ranging wildlife such as grizzly, pronghorn, and Greater Sage-grouse. This sagebrush steppe is home to multi-generational family ranches intermixed with public land and supports Montana’s important recreational and agricultural economies. It is these high-elevation sagebrush grasslands that have shaped communities, local economies, and a way of life in Southwest Montana, but some serious challenges are looming. This partnership is aimed at finding solutions and putting them to work on the ground… Keep reading here.
Video Series on Woodland Expansion
The Society for Range Management’s scientific journal, Rangeland Ecology & Management, released a special issue focused entirely on this landscape-level threat and these studies were presented at a live-streamed science symposium. This issue is called Woody invasion of western rangelands: Using grouse as focal species for ecosystem restoration. The event was video recorded and available to the public for free.
Management Tools and Success Stories
Other Relevant Science on Conifer Removal:
Pretreatment tree dominance and conifer removal treatments affect plant succession in sagebrush communities by Williams, R. et al. 2017
Pinyon and Juniper Encroachment into Sagebrush Ecosystems Impacts Distribution and Survival of Greater Sage-Grouse by Peter S. Coates et al. 2017
Encounters with Pinyon-Juniper Influence Riskier Movements in Greater Sage-Grouse Across the Great Basin by Brian G. Prochazka et al. 2017
Extending Conifer Removal and Landscape Protection Strategies from Sage-grouse to Songbirds, a Range-Wide Assessment by J.P. Donnelly et al. 2017
Mapping Tree Canopy Cover in Support of Proactive Prairie Grouse Conservation in Western North America by M.J. Falkowski et al. 2017
Effects of Conifer Expansion on Greater Sage-Grouse Nesting Habitat Selection by A. Olson et al. 2016