Sagebrush once covered roughly 247 million acres in western North America. Today, this imperiled landscape is only half its original size and rapidly shrinking due to invasive annual grasses and rangeland fire. In this ecosystem, historic fire return intervals in native sagebrush steppe would occur every 30 to 100+ years. Where invasive annual grasses become established, fire return intervals have greatly increased and some areas have experienced wildfire every 5 to 15 years.
Such fires pose a major threat to ranchers, local communities, and others who depend on this ecosystem for their livelihood and rural way of life. The sagebrush ecosystem provides the base to millions of acres of productive agriculture. The loss of this base due to frequent and catastrophic wildfire and the spread of invasives impacts the food, water, and air quality of cities and communities across the West. Hundreds of partners are working together to better prevent these types of fires and address the threat of invasive species. These actions benefit sage grouse and other wildlife species, as well as the communities that depend on the economic, ecological, and social values of the sagebrush ecosystem.
Rangeland managers agree that if we do not get ahold this issue, we might be negating all previous efforts in sagebrush conservation and restoration - literally watching it go up in smoke. The scale and magnitude of this issue, and associated impacts to communities across the West, warrants urgent attention and action.
While wildfire has long been an important topic in the American West, most of the public and policy discussion has addressed wildfire-related challenges in forested systems. Far less attention has been devoted to rangeland fires, yet data suggest the invasives-wildfire threat is likely the most dangerous to rangelands. For example, of the total acres burned over the past 19 years in the continental U.S. across all land ownerships, 56% burned in rangelands and 44% burned in forests. Within the Department of the Interior’s jurisdiction, 73% of all acres burned in the West over the last 19 years were in rangelands, and most of those acres burned in cheatgrass-invaded landscapes (BLM 2019).
Putting Science into Practice
Across the western sagebrush range, planning and prioritization efforts were and are continuing to be developed to address these ongoing threats. One such effort created the Science Framework for Conservation and Restoration of the Sagebrush Biome (Part 1 and Part 2). This has provided the information needed to assist managers in prioritizing and planning on-the-ground restoration and mitigation actions across the sagebrush biome.
Another team comprised of plant ecologists, wildlife biologists, fire specialists, and land managers was organized by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The team’s goal was to develop a strategic approach using resilience and resistance concepts to identify places at lowest and highest risk of sagebrush ecosystem loss due to spread of invasives and wildfire. In simple terms, “resilience” is the ability of the land to return to its previous state after a disturbance like wildfire. The term “resistance” is the capability of a system to withstand change and retain its natural character.
This team developed a framework called the Fire and Invasives Assessment Tool (FIAT) to assess the major threats to the sagebrush ecosystem to conserve sage grouse and its habitat. The framework provides a matrix (show graphic of matrix) used to prioritize planning efforts based on Greater Sage-grouse breeding bird densities and level of sagebrush rangelands resilience and resistance. The BLM used this framework and matrix to develop a prioritization of their planning efforts for land treatments that address the spread of invasives and threat from wildfire in the Great Basin. Key to the restoration and rehabilitation efforts on lands damaged by rangeland fires, invasive species, severe storms, and drought is the National Seed Strategy.
Mitigation and restoration efforts are essential in stemming the loss of sagebrush habitat. Through our Partners to Conserve Sagebrush Rangelands' capacity-building model, we are teaming with local partners to help them deliver on the ground conservation where needed most.
Management Tools and Success Stories
- Spotlight -
RAP Training Webinar
In this webinar participants will learn about the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) – a new free, online tool that helps landowners and natural resource managers track vegetation through time and plan actions to improve America’s grazing lands. The RAP is a free, online tool that helps landowners and natural resource managers track vegetation through time and plan actions to improve America’s grazing lands. The RAP can be used to provide strategies to improve productivity of grazing lands, manage weeds, mitigate impacts of wildfire and drought, and benefit wildlife habitats.
Relevant Science on Fire & Invasives
Operationalizing Resilience and Resistance Concepts to Address Invasive Grass-Fire Cycles by Jeanne Chambers, et al. 2019
Repeated fires reduce plant diversity in low‐elevation Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystems (1984–2014) by Adam Mahood, et al. 2019