Increasing Rangeland Resilience and Resistance

On western lands dominated by sagebrush, large wildfires are now much more frequent and intense. 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. These uncharacteristic fires are often a result of the large-scale spread and dominance of nonnative invasive annual grasses. Hundreds of partners are working together to better prevent fires, improve efforts in suppression, 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.


The Fire-Invasive Cycle

Historically, fires in sagebrush country varied due to topography, fuel abundance and continuity, and soil type. Fire occurred every several decades in colder, wetter sagebrush lands at higher elevations and every few hundred years in the hotter, dryer lower elevations. 

Contemporary fire cycles have substantially changed from these historic trends. The hotter-dryer lower elevations are experiencing much more frequent fire intervals that don’t allow the landscape time to recover. This is primarily due to the fire’s interaction with nonnative invasive grasses (like cheatgrass) that dry out early in the season, which causes them to burn faster, hotter, and larger in size. Some areas experience “reburns” every 7 to 15 years. Fire cycles for the colder-moister sagebrush lands shifted towards smaller and less frequent fires due to effective fire suppression efforts and other human activities. 

The Department of Interior’s Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy states that fires burned on average 3.3 million sagebrush acres per year during the 1990s. This average increased to 6.6 million acres per year during the early 2000s. From 2012 to 2014, nearly 17 million acres burned nationally, of which nearly 3.8 million were Greater Sage-grouse habitat in the western states. Federal and state agencies and other partners are working together to adjust priorities and shift resources to address the threat of uncharacteristic fire to this ecosystem.

Putting Science into Practice

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Across the western sagebrush range, planning and prioritization efforts were and are continuing to be developed to address these ongoing threats. A team comprised of plant ecologists, wildlife biologists, fire specialists, and land managers were 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

The Sagebrush Rangeland Partnership is supporting opportunities to address fire and invasives, both before and after fires occur. Mitigation and restoration efforts are essential in stemming the loss of sagebrush habitat. Through our partnership's 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

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Wildfire and Invasives: Current Challenges and Future Solutions

Researchers are increasing attention on the need to address the causes of wildfires in sagebrush country that are driven by invasive annual grasses. They are also suggesting solutions.

In 2013, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies was contracted to establish a multi-agency Wildfire and Invasive Species Working Group and conduct an assessment of fire and invasive plant management options for the conservation of sagebrush habitats across ownerships. The initial effort produced a Gap Analysis Report that summarized the policy, fiscal, and science challenges that land managers have encountered regarding the control and reduction of the invasive annual grass/fire cycle. Find this report here.


Training Resource: Successful Management in the Sage

A new web-based educational series produced by the Bureau of Land Management in partnership with The Nature Conservancy is now open and available for public viewing. The purpose of the training is to convey science-based management practices across the sagebrush steppe. Each module is tailored for managers facing issues related to wildfires, sagebrush habitat loss, trends in invasive, non-native vegetation, and other threats.

These courses are free and publicly available once you log in.