Collaboration in Sagebrush Country
This story is brought to you by the partnership between the Intermountain West Joint Venture and the Bureau of Land Management as part of a series highlighting local success stories and what made them possible.
Soda Fire Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation
During the summer of 2015, the Soda Fire burned nearly 280,000 acres of sagebrush ecosystems just southwest of Boise, Idaho, along the border of southern Idaho and eastern Oregon. This lightning-caused fire spread rapidly, affecting vegetation, wildlife, ranchers, and local communities.
All told, over a quarter-million acres of sagebrush rangelands were affected, along with 41 grazing allotments, recreation areas, a wild horse management area, and important habitat for many species. To add to the complexity, the resources affected spanned across state boundaries of federal, private, and state-owned lands.
Three years later, ongoing cooperative partnership efforts to rehabilitate and restore these rangelands serve as an outdoor laboratory to learn what it takes to bring the land back.
The biggest threat post-wildfire in sagebrush country is losing ground to invasive, non-native annual grasses. Plants like cheatgrass or medusahead-rye take advantage of disturbances such as wildfires, outcompeting native vegetation. These invaders dry out much earlier than native plants and can significantly lengthen the historic fire season. Plus, these grasses ignite easily, leading to hotter, more frequent wildfires that spread rapidly.
The spread of invasive annual grasses reduces the resiliency of the landscape to withstand future threats. It also disrupts water cycles, degrades wildlife habitat, reduces the forage productivity for livestock, and degrade outdoor recreation opportunities.
Since the Soda Fire impacted a mosaic of public and private land owners, a collaborative cross-boundary approach was crucial to push the sagebrush system back towards perennial plants and away from invasive annual grasses.
- Total acres: 279,144
- Private property: 40,138
- State endowment lands: 12,896)
- BLM grazing allotments: 41
- Fences: 592 miles
Environmental Resources Impacted:
- Sage grouse habitat: 243,294 acres
- Sage grouse leks (occupied): 10
- Springs: 208
- Riparian areas: 6,441 acres
- Bighorn sheep habitat: 141,000 acres
- Streams with redband trout habitat: 140 miles
- Mule deer winter habitat: 29,317 acres
- Pronghorn winter habitat: 26,610 acres
- Golden eagle nests: 68
As the lead on treating areas damaged by the massive Soda Fire, the BLM developed an Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation (ESR) plan. The agency convened an interdisciplinary team of natural resource specialists to complete field assessments of the damage as well as design and implement a variety of treatments to address post-fire disturbance across the landscape.
The ESR plan focused on the resistance and resilient concept to ensure the burned areas are resistant to invasive annual grasses, and resilient to future threats like drought or subsequent wildfires.
- Drill and broadcast seeding of desired plant species;
- Aerial application of herbicides to temporarily inhibit germination of cheatgrass and medusahead;
- Hand planting of native sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings; and,
- Strategic fuel breaks along roads using mowing, chemicals, seeding, and livestock grazing to reduce the spread of future wildfires and protect current restoration investments.
In true Western neighborly fashion, dozens of partners are now working together across ownership boundaries to match up rehabilitation approaches seamlessly across jurisdictional and ownership boundaries, utilizing the same seed mixes, contractors, and other treatment implementation strategies to ensure treatments were completed consistently on a landscape-level
Extensive monitoring of post-fire treatments related to the Soda Fire rehabilitation is helping evaluate restoration effectiveness, inform adaptive management, and convey the lessons-learned from this effort to other regions in the West. The U.S. Geological Survey is leading the ongoing monitoring efforts, which track how the landscape is responding to various techniques.
This monitoring allows partners to adapt their approach as needed to maximize rehabilitation investments. This adaptive management also helps rural communities better prepare for future threats from invasive annual grassess and wildfires.