Sagebrush Rangelands Help Maintain Water Availability

Wet areas are critical for sage grouse in late summer -- removing encroaching conifers helps retain water for the benefit of wildlife and ranching operations.August 3, 2016

Wet areas are critical for sage grouse in late summer — removing encroaching conifers helps retain water for the benefit of wildlife and ranching operations

Download a PDF of this Science to Solutions report

Removing encroaching conifer stands from sagebrush ecosystems can increase late season water retention in western rangelands by holding snow longer in the spring. Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service analyzed snow and streamflow data from a snow-dominated sagebrush steppe ecosystem in southwest Idaho to evaluate the impact that juniper-dominated landscapes might have on water availability in the system. They found that areas with more juniper had earlier snow melt and less streamflow relative to sagebrush-dominated landscapes.

Snow blows into drifts in a treeless sagebrush landscape, increasing water availability later in the year.

Snow blows into drifts in a treeless sagebrush landscape, increasing water availability later in the year.

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.

Holding water later into the summer season helps the sagebrush system become more diverse, benefiting vegetation, wildlife, and ranchers. This is one of the greatest services that an ecosystem can provide in the West.

This Science to Solutions report is based on peer-reviewed research to be published in Rangeland Ecology & Management, the journal for the Society for Range Management. Stay tuned for an upcoming special issue of REM that will evaluate woodland expansion and conifer removal in sagebrush and prairie ecosystems.

Read the Science to Solutions report here

Download the full study by Patrick R. Kormos, et. al., Ecosystem Water Availability in Juniper versus Sagebrush Snow-Dominated Rangelands

science to solutions - water availability conifer removal

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The Sage Grouse Initiative, led by the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America's western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life.

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