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Environment: Post-fire rehab treatments in Great Basin not doing much good for sage-grouse

Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

Greater sage-grouse. Photo courtesy USFWS.

More targeted treatments could benefit threatened birds

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Post-fire rehabilitation work in the Great Basin’s sagebrush ocean isn’t doing much to help greater sage-grouse, USGS and U.S. Forest Service scientists found in a new study.

The research team took a close look at areas eight to 20 years after seeding efforts, pointing out that such restoration projects could, in theory, be used to improve sage grouse habitat — but only if the right types of seeds are planted.

Sage-grouse tend to use areas with a mixture of dwarf sagebrush and Wyoming big sagebrush, native grasses, minimal human development, and minimal non-native plants. Most post-fire restoration projects are were designed to mitigate the effects of fire on soil and vegetation — but they provide an opportunity to reverse habitat degradation for sage-grouse, a species being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

To start, the scientists pinpointed sage-grouse habitat in the Great Basin and matched it against areas  that had burned and were subsequently seeded with rangeland plant species between 1990 and 2003. To link the two phases of the study, the authors assessed whether vegetation conditions in rehabilitated areas were similar to the habitats used by sage-grouse.

“When we compared these vegetation and landscape conditions to those of post-wildfire rehabilitation sites, we found that the probability of sage-grouse using treated areas was low and not very different from burned areas that had not been treated,” said USGS ecologist Robert Arkle, the lead author of the publication.

Burned areas, whether treated or not, generally lacked shrubs even after 20 years, and in low elevation areas especially, non-native plants like cheatgrass were often too prevalent for burned sites to be used as sage-grouse habitat.

This is important because it means that for at least 20 years following wildfire, burned areas of the Great Basin are not likely to be used by sage-grouse, regardless of emergency stabilization treatment. With this kind of time lag, a substantial amount of sage-grouse habitat is lost each year to wildfire, while gaining relatively little through natural plant succession or emergency stabilization treatments.

Published guidelines about what constitutes sage-grouse habitat also provided criteria for comparison to what the scientists observed in the seeded sites. Seeded areas met habitat guideline criteria for native grasses about half of the time, but the majority of seeding projects did not meet sagebrush or forb guideline criteria.

Some individual seeding projects did result in higher quality habitat and the authors evaluated the environmental conditions shared by these sites to determine where post-fire rehabilitation is more likely to benefit sage-grouse. Seeding projects that were most effective tended to occur in cool, moderately moist climates and also depended on post-treatment precipitation and surrounding landscape conditions.

“This is part of a growing body of science demonstrating how difficult it is to rehabilitate sagebrush landscapes once native vegetation is lost through wildfire,” said USGS ecologist David Pilliod, who co-authored the publication.

“Restoration in the Great Basin is a huge challenge for land managers not only because of difficulties associated with reducing non-native plants and establishing natives, but also because of the rate at which landscapes with sagebrush and other native vegetation are lost. These habitat losses can have negative consequences for sage-grouse and other wildlife that depend on sagebrush.”

The study found that even relatively small amounts of non-native plants and human development were both forms of habitat loss that affected whether sage-grouse would use particular locations.

Although these projects did not specifically target sage-grouse, they are important sage-grouse conservation opportunities, according to Arkle. This is because wildfires burn about one million acres each year in the Great Basin and 97 percent of the acres treated by these projects are in historic sage-grouse habitat.

This research was conducted in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management and the Joint Fire Science Project. Funding was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service.

The study, Quantifying restoration effectiveness using multi-scale habitat models- implications for sage-grouse in the Great Basin, published in Ecosphere is an offshoot of a larger effort to assess ecological outcomes of emergency stabilization and rehabilitation projects conducted by federal land managers in the Great Basin.

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