Author Archives: Greg Peters

Flying sage grouse

Latest sage grouse “Scorecard” Highlights NRCS Investments and Outcomes

Sage grouse flying with Mt. Rainier in the background.

Photo: Tatiana Gettelman, Yakima Training Center


Check out the latest Greater Sage-Grouse Scorecard which details NRCS investments and conservation milestones in sagebrush country for fiscal year 2021 and cumulatively since 2010.


SGI scroecard cover image

Click to download the latest sage grouse scorecard.


Learn more about what we’re doing to advance sagebrush conservation in our Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome.


 

Ask an Expert | Forage Production Lost to Tree Expansion

Tree expansion (pinyon-juniper) in the Warner Mountains of Oregon. Photo: Andrew Olsen


Quantifying Economic Impact of Woody Expansion Bolsters Grassland Conservation

>>READ THE PAPER<<

Woody species like pinyon, juniper, and eastern redcedar trees are expanding into grass and shrub lands where they haven’t grown historically. The ecological impacts of this woody expansion are well documented, but until now, the economic impacts have been anecdotal.

Research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, and led by Scott Morford, a Working Lands for Wildlife-affiliated researcher at the University of Montana, quantifies the economic impacts of lost herbaceous production, one of the many negative effects of woody expansion.

The team used the Rangelands Analysis Platform to track changes in vegetation cover and biomass production across western rangelands from 1990 to 2019 and then mapped these data to understand how the production of grasses and forbs changed when trees moved in and converted grasslands and sagebrush rangelands to woodlands.

This knowledge helps focus conservation action where it will be the most effective, increasing grassland productivity and benefiting livestock and wildlife alike. We sat down with Scott to discuss his research and what it means for western rangelands.

Your paper is called Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands. What is herbaceous production, and why does losing it matter?

Simply put, herbaceous production is the amount of grass and nonwoody plant material that grows each year in grass and shrub lands. Herbaceous plants are those that you typically associate with a grassland. They create the base of the food system in rangelands, both for wildlife and livestock.

Herbaceous production is the amount of grass and other nonwoody species that grow in a grass or shrub land. These plants are the foundation for grass and shrub land ecology.

Producers really care about declines in herbaceous production because it directly impacts livestock forage, which affects their bottom line, and ultimately their families and the viability of rural grazing communities. In turn, wildlife enthusiasts should care about maintaining productivity so that producers don’t have to cultivate or subdivide grassland and sagebrush habitats to remain profitable. Keeping grasslands ‘green side up’ and restoring former grazing lands is the key to increasing grassland and shrubland biodiversity.

We adopted the idea of yield gap from crop science. Farmers and agronomists monitor and measure the difference between yield potential and actual grain production to make management decisions and optimize farm profitability. A one percent decline in grain production typically sets in motion a multitude of management adaptions to close this gap in yield. We got busy deciding how to replicate this measurement system for grasslands.

Now, the WLFW science team is updating annually the impacts to herbaceous production from woodland expansion. Our goal is to alert ranchers to management opportunities that result in more and better forage for their livestock, which underpins the profitability of that grazing unit. It’s another great example of the WLFW science team coproducing science with rural communities to benefit agriculture and wildlife.

Your team found some alarming statistics in the data you analyzed. What surprised you the most?

The rate of tree cover expansion was a real eye-opener for me – a quarter of western rangelands are seeing more trees. In prairie conservation, the conversion of grasslands to croplands gets a ton of attention. But we’re seeing similar losses of productive grasslands from woodland expansion. For example, roughly 36 million acres of tree-free rangelands have been converted into woodlands over the past 30 years – that’s an area roughly the size of Iowa.

Tree expansion in western rangelands

Woody expansion in western rangelands from 1990-2019. Texas and Oklahoma have been particularly hard hit by tree encroachment, though nearly all western rangelands are seeing more trees. Figure 2 from paper.

The second big finding was that since 1990 producers have lost roughly 332 million tons of forage production on U.S. rangelands. This loss is roughly equivalent to the total grass production of North Dakota over the same period. This lost production is valued at $4.1–$5.6 billion after accounting for variability in livestock biomass use and forage value. These kinds of numbers make people stand up and take stock of the need to proactively manage woodland expansion into grasslands.

Yield gaps in western rangelands.

Yield gap in herbaceous production attributable to woodland expansion from 1990-2019. This map depicts the most severe yield gaps (red color), which are found in the southern Great Plains. Production losses extend north and west into sage-steppe rangelands. Cultivated lands and built environments shown in white. Figure 4 from paper.

Lastly, for me, the increase in the rate of tree expansion in the northern Great Plains was alarming. Tree expansion isn’t in the public consciousness up there, but we’re starting to see that real uptick in this threat. Being able to show that in the science and then to communicate it to people is really important. After doing this analysis, I’d remind anyone up north that the best time to kill a dinosaur is when it’s still in the egg.

How does one measure herbaceous production to get at these answers?

In the past, people went out into the grassland with scissors, clipped the grass and flowering plants, put them in a bag, dried them, and weighed them. And then we used those plot-based measures to extrapolate production changes across larger areas.

But with technological advances we don’t have to sample production in one place and hope it applies elsewhere anymore; instead, we can use satellites and have accurate measures everywhere. Technology allows us to look at changes in production every 16 days, or annually, and we can evaluate the impact of changes from images that go back 30 years. When we combine the satellite and meteorological data, we can see how much grass or forb production is happening on a very specific piece of land, or across big landscapes.

There must be many factors that influence herbaceous production, like drought. How did you estimate the amount of lost production that is directly attributable to expanding trees?

We used satellite images and lots of computer power to investigate how production and tree cover change together over time. We have tools that use these satellite images in combination with meteorological data, topography, soils, and on-the-ground vegetation information to learn how production responds to tree cover expansion. These tools also tell us what production should be if trees never moved in since there are plenty of places on the landscape where tree cover remains unchanged through time. This gives us a direct way to estimate lost productivity due to trees by comparing the actual production with what it could have been if tree cover stayed constant over the past 30 years, while still accounting for year-to-year variation in climate.

Put another way, our computer models allow us to turn up or turn down the tree cover, like the volume knob on a radio, and see how production is impacted. Importantly, our analysis does not try to remove trees that are already on the landscape historically. Rather, we simply ask what production would be if tree cover remained unchanged over the past three decades instead of increasing steadily as we’ve observed.

Where is tree expansion happening and how have these big changes gone unnoticed?

Tree expansion is a global phenomenon that is accelerating grassland losses on every continent except Antarctica. Here in the U.S., WLFW is addressing tree expansion in the Great Plains grasslands and farther west in the sagebrush biome. Across this broad geography, expansion generally stretches from the north to south with a few exceptions in California and the desert southwest where tree cover is decreasing in response to prolonged, unprecedented drought.

Our findings show that the rate of tree expansion rivals that of cultivation.

What strikes me is that most people still don’t recognize the loss of grasslands to trees as a major ecosystem threat. Most people easily identify the big impact when a grassland is cultivated, but few notice the impact on biodiversity when an intact grassland converts into a woodland. This is due in part to how slowly trees colonize new areas, but I also think people are programmed to appreciate trees on the landscape, even if they don’t belong there.

sage grouse

Sage grouse are a specialist species – they need large expanses of tree-free rangelands to survive. Research has shown that sage grouse will abandon otherwise suitable habitat when just one or two trees per acre appear. Photo: Tatiana Gettelman, Yakima Training Center

It’s important to understand that even very small changes in tree cover drive big changes in biodiversity. Grassland specialist birds, for example, will stop using a site when tree cover reaches just a few trees per acre. Most of us would miss that change unless we’re really keyed into a site. From a producer’s perspective, catching tree expansion at these initial stages is when you want to address your tree problem. If you wait until you have 10%, 20%, or 30% tree cover, you’re seeing real impacts on production, and tree removal becomes very expensive.

 

 

How do declines in productivity caused by trees compare to those from severe drought?

Every year, trees are reducing the overall production of forage on western rangelands by 5-6%. That may seem like a small number, but at a national scale, and from an agronomic perspective, it is a big deal. If you’re a rancher in southern Oklahoma where tree expansion is severe, you’re probably experiencing production declines of closer to 30-60% a year, every year.

At the national level, a 5-6% loss is equivalent to a sector-wide drop in crop productivity caused by a severe drought. But droughts are relatively infrequent, maybe every eight or 15 years, depending on where you are. The average west-wide decline in productivity caused by woodland expansion is similar to that of a severe drought, but it’s happening every year, year after year, it’s happening across large swaths of western rangelands, and it’s growing.

There’s also a compounding effect. If you’re a producer in the western U.S. dealing with tree expansion and a severe drought happens, the combined impacts on productivity become that much bigger. Even after you recover from the drought, the production loss from tree expansion is still there and getting worse.

Speaking of the data, your paper mentions that the relationship between production losses and expanding trees isn’t linear. Will you explain this finding a bit more?

The easiest way to think production losses it is that these things act like a threshold or like you’re stepping off a cliff. Early on, as trees are expanding, you see relatively little loss of herbaceous production, which can lead people to think there’s not a problem. But eventually that all changes. Trees outcompete the native grasses and forbs for water, sunlight, and nutrients; then herbaceous production drops, and it drops fast.

Tree encroachment Nebraska

Eastern redcedar trees have converted this once productive grassland in Nebraska to a woodland. As trees move in and become denser, forage production drops.

So, you may have a situation where for the first five, 10, or even 15 years that trees move into a grassland, there’s not much change in production. But then from years 20 to 25, all of a sudden, over that five-year period, you’ve lost 30-40% of your production. And, from there, the rate of loss keeps going up as time goes on.

Importantly that timing depends on where you are in the country, but there will be a drop off. The point we’re trying to make with the paper is that we can’t afford to wait until that threshold is met. We need to be proactive.

How is this information being used to bolster grassland conservation?

In the Great Plains, where more than 90% of the land is privately owned, it’s critical to work with landowners to conserve intact grasslands that support wildlife and livestock production. Even though there’s more public land in the sagebrush biome, much of the productive rangeland there is privately owned as well. So, across the entire western U.S., conservation on privately owned lands is absolutely critical if we’re going to maintain biodiversity, support rural communities, and keep our working rangelands from collapsing.

When we combine the information and data we produced through this research with other information, it allows us to understand where on the ground we should be putting conservation resources. We can prioritize where to work through the Defend the Core strategy and where we need to work with communities to mitigate the impacts that happen when grasslands transition to woodlands.

That’s exactly what WLFW is doing through its biome-specific Frameworks for Conservation Action.

Second page Yield Gap Fact Sheet - Great Plains

Click on the image to download a fact sheet about lost production from woody expansion in the Great Plains.

This research is part of a growing body of science that is spurring on-the-ground action like the Great Plains Grassland Initiatives, which are proactive state-led NRCS efforts aimed at stopping woodland expansion from affecting intact grasslands in priority areas of the Great Plains. The Kansas Great Plains Grassland Initiative, for example, allocated almost $4 million for removing eastern redcedar from priority areas for 2021, and Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota are investing millions, too. Since 2010, we’ve removed conifers on more than 650,000 acres of land, and we’ve worked with public land managements agencies on cross-boundary work, expanding that amount even more.

Those investments are great news for grass and shrub land conservation. I’m hopeful this research will lead to even more.

 

—-

This research was supported by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Effects Assessment Project – Wildlife Component, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the Bureau of Land Management. 


—LEARN MORE—

Read the paper: “Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands.”

Explore country-level productivity data here.

Learn more about the impacts of woodland expansion into sagebrush rangelands through the Pinyon Juniper Encroachment Education Project.

Access “Reducing Woody Encroachment in Grasslands: A Guide for Understanding Risk and Vulnerability” here.

Access a Decade of Science Support in the Sagebrush Biome report that summarizes Working Lands for Wildlife-supported research across sagebrush country.

Access the Loess Canyons Experimental Landscape Science Report that details how landowners in the Loess Canyons area of Nebraska have worked together to stop grassland loss from trees and to restore productive grazing lands. The report also includes recent Working Lands for Wildlife-supported research from this region.


 

Yield gaps in western rangelands.

Publication Alert: Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands

Yield gap in herbaceous production attributable to woodland expansion from 1990-2019. This map depicts the most severe yield gaps (red color), which are found in the southern Great Plains. Production losses extend north and west into sage-steppe rangelands. Cultivated lands and built environments shown in white.

Adapted from Figure 4 in paper. 


Researchers quantify forage yield gap caused by woody encroachment

The ecological impacts of woody plants expanding onto U.S. rangelands are well documented. When trees move in, grassland wildlife move out, herbaceous plants are displaced, water supplies and soil moisture decline, forage production (grasses and forbs) for livestock and wildlife drops, and the risk of severe wildfires increases. These impacts affect western sagebrush-steppe rangelands and the Great Plains grasslands alike, where much of the landscape is privately owned and used for ranching.

New research from University of Montana researchers affiliated with Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) quantifies the economic impacts of lost herbaceous production throughout the American west. This research was supported by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Effects Assessment Project – Wildlife Component, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Led by Scott Morford, the team tapped into the power of the Rangelands Analysis Platform to track changes in vegetation cover and biomass production across western rangelands from 1990 to 2019. The researchers analyzed and mapped these data to understand how herbaceous production (grass and forb biomass) changed when trees moved in and converted grasslands to woodlands and forests.

The team then quantified the “yield gap” caused by tree encroachment for each county in 17 western states. Yield gap refers to the difference between the actual herbaceous production (after trees had moved in) and potential herbaceous production (in the absence of trees). The team used the gap in grassland yield to estimate the economic value of lost forage in terms of tonnage and dollars.

Across all western U.S. rangelands, tree expansion now creates an annual yield gap of roughly 5-6%. These large year-over-year losses are similar in magnitude to impacts on commodity crops caused by extreme drought but have a longer-lasting impact. The team estimated the total value of lost production due to expanding trees at $4.8 billion from 1990 to 2019. In 2019 alone, the yield gap exceeded $300 million in lost forage.

The team also found that tree cover increased in more than 25% of western rangelands during this 30-year period. Grasslands saw an 85% increase in tree cover, with roughly 8% of tree-free grasslands transitioning to woodlands, in turn elevating the vulnerability of adjacent tree-free rangelands to future degradation.

Working Lands for Wildlife is directly addressing woody expansion across both landscapes through its biome-specific frameworks for conservation action. These plans call for proactive management of woody species through a Defend the Core, Grow the Core, Mitigate Impacts strategy.

This conservation strategy flips the old, expensive, and ineffective way of thinking about this threat. Instead of focusing time and limited dollars on treating areas that have already transitioned to a woodland state, this strategy focuses on preventing treeless cores from being taken over by trees. Once core areas are protected, managers can expand intact cores by stopping further tree expansion. In areas where rangelands have fully transitioned to woodlands, conservation partners can enact efforts to mitigate impacts and help communities and wildlife adapt.

See www.wlfw.org/yieldgap for state-level and county-level statistics regarding yield gaps and economic impacts detailed in this paper.

Learn more about WLFW’s efforts here.

Access “Reducing Woody Encroachment in Grasslands: A Guide for Understanding Risk and Vulnerability” here.

Learn more about the Kansas Great Plains Grasslands Initiative.

Learn more about the Nebraska Great Plains Grassland Initiative.

Read an Ask an Expert interview with lead researcher, Scott Morford, here.

Encroaching trees reduce herbaceous production in rangelands creating a yield gap

New science helps quantify the amount and value of lost herbaceous production when woody species, like these pinyon and juniper trees, expand into western rangelands. Photo: Jeremy Roberts Conservation Media.


 Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands

Abstract: Rangelands of the United States provide ecosystem services that benefit society and rural economies. Native tree encroachment is often overlooked as a primary threat to rangelands due to the slow pace of tree cover expansion and the positive public perception of trees. Still, tree encroachment fragments these landscapes and reduces herbaceous production, thereby threatening habitat quality for grassland wildlife and the economic sustainability of animal agriculture.

Recent innovations in satellite remote sensing permit the tracking of tree encroachment and the corresponding impact on herbaceous production. We analyzed tree cover change and herbaceous production across the western United States from 1990 to 2019.

We show that tree encroachment is widespread in U.S. rangelands; absolute tree cover has increased by 50% (77,323 km2) over 30 years, with more than 25% (684,852 km2) of U.S. rangelands experiencing tree cover expansion. Since 1990, 302 ± 30 Tg of herbaceous biomass has been lost. Accounting for variability in livestock biomass utilization and forage value reveals that this lost production is valued at between $4.1 and $5.6 billion U.S. dollars.

Synthesis and applications: The magnitude of impact of tree encroachment on rangeland loss is similar to row-crop conversion, another well-known and primary mechanism of rangeland loss in the U.S. Prioritizing conservation efforts to prevent tree encroachment can bolster ecosystem and economic sustainability, particularly among privately-owned lands threatened by land-use conversion.

Citation: Morford, S. L., Allred, B. W., Twidwell, D., Jones, M. O., Maestas, J. D., Roberts, C. P., & Naugle, D. E. (2022). Herbaceous production lost to tree encroachment in United States rangelands. Journal of Applied Ecology, 00, 1– 12.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2664.14288

Acknowledgements: This work was made possible by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Effects Assessment Project – Wildlife Component, the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission through cooperative agreement 1434-04HQRU1567, and the Bureau of Land Management. NVIDIA provided hardware used in this analysis through their Academic Hardware Grants program.


 

Publication Alert: Next-gen remote sensing tools level up rangeland conservation


Remote sensing tools accurately and efficiently detail conservation outcomes on rangelands

>>Read the Paper<<

Resilient grass and shrub lands support rural economies, store carbon, and provide habitat for a diverse set of wildlife. Tracking and measuring conservation-derived improvements to these ecosystem services is a critical component of restoring and perpetuating healthy rangelands, which encompass more than a third of the U.S.

For decades, accurately and efficiently measuring conservation outcomes across millions of acres of rangelands has been costly, time consuming, and difficult. This is especially true when measuring the response of vegetation to on-the-ground conservation actions. Additionally, traditional plot-level sampling often failed to capture fine-scale variations in vegetation change in response to management practices that are common across pasture, ranch, and watershed scales.

Spatial technologies, like the Rangelands Analysis Platform provide “wall-to-wall” measurements of vegetation biomass across all U.S. rangelands. These remotely sensed datasets are updated regularly and put decades of historic data at researchers’ fingertips. These tools have the potential to provide accurate, efficient, and meaningful evaluations of conservation outcomes, but until recently, this capacity had not been scientifically quantified and evaluated.

New research from Caleb Roberts, a Working Lands for Wildlife-affiliated researcher with the United States Geological Survey, tested whether modern remote sensing tools and datasets can accurately and efficiently quantify vegetation responses and fine-scale variations at different spatial scales following three commonly used rangeland conservation treatments – prescribed fire, tree removal, and prescribed grazing.

Roberts and his team found that next-generation technologies can measure nuanced conservation outcomes accurately and at multiple spatial scales. This capacity unlocks analyses and rapid-response adaptive management opportunities that were impossible with historic field-based monitoring. Additionally, using remote sensing technology to assess conservation outcomes can improve communication of the importance, and effectiveness, of rangeland conservation to diverse stakeholders. This research empowers scientists to employ remote sensing by providing multiple examples of new and exciting ways to quantify outcomes of conservation actions that are so desperately needed for rangelands today.

Spatial technologies are at the core of WLFW’s approach to rangeland conservation in sagebrush country and the Great Plains. Remotely sensed, spatially specific datasets, maps, and planning tools detail core areas where proactive, preventative conservation can prevent grassland losses, while also enabling the type of monitoring and outcome reporting featured in this paper. Learn more about how spatial technologies are foundational to our work.


Figure from paper


Next-generation technologies unlock new possibilities to track rangeland productivity and quantify multi-scale conservation outcomes

Abstract: Historically, relying on plot-level inventories impeded our ability to quantify large-scale change in plant biomass, a key indicator of conservation practice outcomes in rangeland systems. Recent technological advances enable assessment at scales appropriate to inform management by providing spatially comprehensive estimates of productivity that are partitioned by plant functional group across all contiguous US rangelands. We partnered with the Sage Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiatives and the Nebraska Natural Legacy Project to demonstrate the ability of these new datasets to quantify multi-scale changes and heterogeneity in plant biomass following mechanical tree removal, prescribed fire, and prescribed grazing. In Oregon’s sagebrush steppe, for example, juniper tree removal resulted in a 21% increase in one pasture’s productivity and an 18% decline in another. In Nebraska’s Loess Canyons, perennial grass productivity initially declined 80% at sites invaded by trees that were prescriptively burned, but then fully recovered post-fire, representing a 492% increase from nadir. In Kansas’ Shortgrass Prairie, plant biomass increased 4-fold (966,809 kg/ha) in pastures that were prescriptively grazed, with gains highly dependent upon precipitation as evidenced by sensitivity of remotely sensed estimates (SD ± 951,308 kg/ha). Our results emphasize that next-generation remote sensing datasets empower land managers to move beyond simplistic control versus treatment study designs to explore nuances in plant biomass in unprecedented ways. The products of new remote sensing technologies also accelerate adaptive management and help communicate wildlife and livestock forage benefits from management to diverse stakeholders.

Citation: Roberts, C.P. Roberts, D.E. Naugle, B.W. Allred, V.M. Donovan, D.T. Fogarty, M.O. Jones, J.D. Maestas, A.C. Olsen, and D. Twidwell. 2022. Next-generation technologies unlock new possibilities to track rangeland productivity and quantify multi-scale conservation outcomes. Journal of Environmental Management 2022, 324:116359.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2022.116359

Acknowledgements: Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (OIA-1920938), United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Service and Pheasants Forever (PG18-62799-01 and Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0-19-06), Nebraska Game & Parks Commission (W-125-R-1), US Department of Agriculture NIFA AFRI (M1903198), the University of Nebraska Agricultural Research Division, and the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Arkansas. This work was made possible by the NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife in support of sage-grouse and prairie-chicken conservation and the USDA Conservation Effects Assessment Project-Wildlife Component and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission through cooperative agreement 1434-04HQRU1567.


 

Map of fire probability in Grea Basin 2000-2021

Publication Alert: New tool maps the likelihood of large wildfires in the Great Basin


Two new papers highlight how rangeland fires are different from forest fires and how fire-probability research can inform fuels management in rangelands.

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and damaging in the arid West. New research, funded by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and supported by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), provides a new tool to aid planners in predicting the probability of where large wildfires are likely to occur in the more than 60 million acres of the Great Basin.

Most fires are contained before causing widespread destruction. But, one to three percent of wildfires in the West escape containment to become large (more than 1,000 acres) and highly impactful, damaging sagebrush ecosystems, wildlife habitat, working ranches, and private property.

Predicting where these large wildfires could occur before fire season starts seems like magic, but when backed by science, this analysis is a key strategy that helps fire managers efficiently deploy fire-fighting resources and communities prepare for the fire season.

These forecasting tools have historically been focused on how fire behaves in a forested ecosystem. Forests have relatively stable sources of fuel (trees and forest-floor litter). As a result, moisture – or the lack thereof – has been a reliable predictor of fire risk. In other words, forests always have enough fuel for a wildfire, but monitoring if that fuel is dry enough to burn is crucial.

Predicting Rangeland Fire

Predicting wildfire in rangelands requires different considerations. Rangelands in the West are typically drier than forests, making predictions less related to moisture and more related to fuel quantity. Known as fuel-limited systems, the amount of burnable plant material in sagebrush rangelands varies considerably from year to year. In years with more fuel, wildfires are more likely to occur given an ignition.

Until this research, however, accurately measuring how much annual and perennial grasses and forbs were produced each year was difficult. Two complementary papers, published in the journal Rangeland Ecology and Management, detail how scientists are using the latest remote sensing technology to calculate the probability of wildfire risk based on vegetative data.

In the first paper, researcher Joe Smith from the University of Montana and colleagues used vegetation data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform alongside historical fire data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity dataset to answer three fire-related questions for rangelands:

1. What kind of fire year might this be?
2. Where are fires likely to occur given an ignition?
3. What vegetation metrics are the best predictors of fire probability?

Smith and his team built fire-prediction models for the Great Basin using 32 years of historical weather, vegetation, and fire data. The team then used a ‘hindcasting’ approach to test their newly created models.

Their research highlights that herbaceous fuel loads – including both annual grasses and perennial vegetation – are the primary predictor of fire risk. They also determined that precipitation in previous growing seasons – rather than how wet or dry the current season is – is the most relevant driver of vegetation fuel loads, and therefore, fire risk in the Great Basin.

Smith’s team found fire risk is influenced equally by all herbaceous vegetation. However, the Great Basin has seen an alarming increase in invasive annual grasses that has mirrored an increase in the area burned in large rangeland fires.

Animated map.

Animated map showing fire probability and actual fires from 1995-2021. Produced by Joe Smith with RAP.

To share his research and provide managers with this much-needed information, Smith released updated fire-probability maps for the 2022 rangeland fire season in the spring, improving the ability of land managers to prepare for potential fires in the upcoming season (the paper was published in September 2022). The maps cover the five-state region of the Great Basin but can be scaled down to a county scale or even a single pasture. He plans to continue updating these maps annually.

Managing for Rangeland Fire

The second paper extends the fire probability work from analysis into how practitioners can use this information to make decisions for the fire season. Authored by Jeremy Maestas and others, the paper discusses rangeland fire trends revealed by Smith’s work, illustrates how Smith’s fire-prediction maps can be used by land managers to better prepare for rangeland fire, and provides current examples of how fire managers are shifting their focus regarding rangeland fuels management.

Maestas notes that, based on Smith’s research, fire probability is highly variable from year-to-year, emphasizing the need for flexibility in fire management across the Great Basin. Unlike weather and topography, managers can directly and preemptively manage available fuels. Smith’s work provides critical information for managers to prioritize preparedness and resources for the upcoming fire season.

Maestas highlights two key opportunities managers have when incorporating Smith’s fire-probability maps into management plans:

1. Pre-fire forecasting to enhance preparedness and suppression
2.  Supporting the planning of targeted fine fuels reductions

Maestas suggests managers should incorporate Smith’s fire-prediction maps into other large-scale planning efforts that address rangeland health. For example, a recent effort launched in Oregon leveraged spatially derived vegetation cover data to create an integrated, cross-boundary strategy for tackling invasive annual grasses in the eastern part of the state. Integrating Smith’s fire-prediction maps would further inform management priorities by helping to target fuels reduction in areas where fire risk may be high.

 

Fire probability, fire trend, times burned maps.

Three maps from Maestas et al. 2022 highlight: Mean fire probability from 2000-2021; Trend in fire probability from 2000-2021; and Times burned from 1984-2019. All maps produced by the Rangelands Analysis Platform.

Additionally, Smith’s research shows some regions in the Great Basin have a higher historical occurrence of fire. Integrating this data into large-scale fuels treatment plans, like herbicide applications or fuel breaks, can help managers better understand the tradeoffs when implementing such practices.

Other broad, biome-based planning and strategic efforts like the NRCS’s Working Lands for Wildlife’s Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome are also ripe for integration with Smith’s fire prediction maps. This effort specifically highlights invasive annual grasses as one of the major threats facing the sagebrush biome. On-the-ground efforts addressing cheatgrass that are supported through the framework can be better prioritized and targeted by incorporating Smith’s maps, thereby reducing both cheatgrass presence and potential fire risk.

This work highlights the crucial role of herbaceous fuels to fire risk, but land managers also recognize the significance of woody shrubs and trees like juniper or pinyon-pine. While these woody species do not increase the odds of a large fire occurring, shrubs burn hotter, causing more extreme fire behavior.

Combined, this research provides new insights into how managers can enhance their ability to put the right actions in the right places at the right times so they can reduce the risk of and impacts from large and severe wildfires in rangelands.

Find Smith’s Great Basin fire prediction maps here: https://rangelands.app/great-basin-fire/.

READ OUR “ASK AN EXPERT” INTERVIEW ABOUT THIS WORK WITH SMITH AND MAESTAS


Paper Title: Where there’s smoke, there’s fuel: dynamic vegetation data improve predictions of wildfire hazard in the Great Basin

Abstract: Wildfires are a growing management concern in western US rangelands, where invasive annual grasses have altered fire regimes and contributed to an increased incidence of catastrophic large wildfires. Fire activity in arid, non-forested ecosystems is thought to be largely controlled by interannual variation in fuel amount, which in turn is controlled by antecedent weather. Thus, long-range forecasting of fire activity in rangelands should be feasible given annual estimates of fuel quantity.

Using a 32 yr time series of spatial data, we employed machine learning algorithms to predict the relative probability of large (>405 ha) wildfire in the Great Basin based on fine-scale annual and 16-day estimates of cover and production of vegetation functional groups, weather, and multitemporal scale drought indices. We evaluated the predictive utility of these models with a leave-one-year-out cross-validation, building spatial hindcasts of fire probability for each year that we compared against actual footprints of large wildfires. Herbaceous aboveground biomass production, bare ground cover, and long-term drought indices were the most important predictors of burning. Across 32 fire seasons, 88% of the area burned in large wildfires coincided with the upper 3 deciles of predicted fire probabilities. At the scale of the Great Basin, several metrics of fire activity were moderately to strongly correlated with average fire probability, including total area burned in large wildfires, number of large wildfires, and maximum fire size.

Our findings show that recent years of exceptional fire activity in the Great Basin were predictable based on antecedent weather-driven growth of fine fuels and reveal a significant increasing trend in fire probability over the last three decades driven by widespread changes in fine fuel characteristics.

Citation: Joseph T. Smith, Brady W. Allred, Chad S. Boyd, Kirk W. Davies, Matthew O. Jones, Andrew R. Kleinhesselink, Jeremy D. Maestas, David E. Naugle, “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fuel: Dynamic Vegetation Data Improve Predictions of Wildfire Hazard in the Great Basin” Rangeland Ecology & Management, 2022, ISSN 1550-7424.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2022.07.005


Paper Title: Using dynamic, fuels-based fire probability maps to reduce large wildfires in the Great Basin

Abstract: Spatial and temporal dynamics of rangeland fuels is a primary factor driving large
wildfires. Yet, detailed information capturing variation in fine fuels has largely been missing from rangeland fire planning and fuels management. New fuels-based maps of Great Basin rangeland fire probability help bridge this gap by coupling dynamic vegetation cover and production data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) with weather and climate data to provide annual forecasts of the relative probability of large wildfire.

In this paper, we review these new fuels-based maps and discuss implications for pre-fire planning, preparedness, and strategic fuels management. Examining patterns of fire probability through time reveals high spatial and temporal variation in risk of large wildfires across the Great Basin. Certain areas are chronically impacted with high fire probability most years, while others have more sporadic or low probability of large fire annually.

Maps confirm previous research that the recent increase in large fire risk in the region is highly associated with invasive annual grasses, but total aboveground herbaceous production (including perennials) continues to be a primary predictor of fire probability.

Fuels-based fire probability maps can be used alongside existing data sources and prioritization frameworks by fire and fuels managers to inform questions of 1) what kind of fire year might this be, 2) where large fires most likely to occur given an ignition, and 3) where resources should be focused.

We provide examples of how maps can be used to improve pre-fire preparedness and planning to enhance suppression, facilitate annual targeting of fine fuels reductions, and support land use planning for implementation of landscape-scale fuels management. Proactively incorporating this new information into rangeland fire and fuels management can help address altered fire regimes threatening the region’s wildlife and working lands.

Citation: Jeremy D. Maestas, Joseph T. Smith, Brady W. Allred, David E. Naugle, Matthew O. Jones, Casey O’Connor, Chad S. Boyd, Kirk W. Davies, Michele R. Crist, Andrew C. Olsen,
“Using Dynamic, Fuels-Based Fire Probability Maps to Reduce Large Wildfires in the Great Basin”
Rangeland Ecology & Management, 2022, ISSN 1550-7424.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rama.2022.08.002


 

Map of fire probability in Grea Basin 2000-2021

Ask an Expert | Getting Ahead of Large Rangeland Fires in the Great Basin

Map showing mean fire probability in the Great Basin from 2000-2021. The last decades have seen an increase in size, frequency, and severity of fire in the Great Basin. New fire probability maps, produced by Joe Smith, help highlight fire probability throughout the Great Basin on an annual basis.


Researchers create first-ever fuels-based maps to predict rangeland fire probability across the Great Basin

The sprawling geography of the Great Basin covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Oregon, California, and Idaho. Large wildfires — those burning thousands of acres in one fell swoop — have increased over recent decades in this region, impacting wildlife habitat, water quality, recreational opportunities, livestock production, and more.

Accurately predicting the likelihood of a large fire in this remote and rugged region, particularly ahead of the upcoming fire season, would provide land and fire managers with critical insight that could help prevent or minimize lasting impacts to the region’s imperiled sagebrush habitats.

New research funded by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and supported by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) does just that.

We sat down with Joe Smith, WLFW researcher, and Jeremy Maestas, sagebrush ecosystem specialist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) West National Technology Support Center, to learn more about how sagebrush rangeland fires differ from forest fires, how Smith led the creation a new fire probability map for the Great Basin, and how this tool can be used to better manage fire risk across the region.

This research focuses on wildfires in the Great Basin. Tell us more about how wildfires have changed in the region over the last few decades? 

Jeremy: According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in the U.S. today, there are more acres cumulatively burned in rangelands than in forests, and most of those rangeland fires are in the Great Basin. But, when people think of fire, they tend to think of forest fires. The reality is that more acres are burning in rangelands than in forests.

Joe: Data from the Monitoring Trends in Burn Severity [a fire information clearinghouse maintained by the U.S. government] shows the 12 largest fires on record in the Great Basin have occurred since 2000, and, of those, eight occurred since 2010. So, there’s growing evidence that fires in the Great Basin are increasing in size and impact over the last 20 years.

Jeremy: When we talk as a society about wildfire, almost all the conversation is focused on forests. This data tells us that fires in rangelands also need to be addressed. The Great Basin is one of the largest expanses of sagebrush range in the country, and it’s been experiencing larger fires. If we don’t focus on rangeland fire and only focus on forest fires, we’re only addressing one-half of the problem.

Animated map.

Animated map showing fire probability and actual fires (purple outlines) on a yearly basis from 1990-2019. Produced by Joe Smith with RAP.

What sort of impact do these larger fires have on rangelands?

Joe: Sagebrush shrublands aren’t as fire-adapted or resilient as forests are. Large fires often have significant and long-lasting ecological consequences in sagebrush country. Many forests, especially those in the West, evolved with regular fire with tree species dependent on fire to reproduce. Sagebrush is different. It’s killed by fire, and when it’s lost, it may be lost for a long time as sagebrush re-establishes only by wind-blown seeds from nearby plants.

Vegetation communities in the Great Basin can be so slow to recover from fire due to aridity of the region. Their vulnerability to invasive species, like cheatgrass, further exacerbates the consequences of fire by disrupting natural recovery processes.

Jeremy: Invasive annual grasses are a game-changer. We don’t have the luxury of just letting fires burn in the Great Basin’s sagebrush ecosystems, even when they’re not threatening infrastructure. Not all fire is bad, even in sagebrush range. But when you lose hundreds of thousands of acres of sagebrush habitat in a matter of days, and you have invasive annual grasses just waiting in the wings to grow after a fire comes through, you start to change entire landscapes that will take a 100 years or more to recover — if they recover at all. The pace and scale of fire in the Great Basin is unsustainable for sagebrush-dependent wildlife and threatens other ecosystem services that we depend on.

Characteristic sagebrush steppe rangeland where cheatgrass has invaded and choked out most of the desirable grasses and forbs. Additionally, invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass create a more connected and flammable fuel source than healthy sagebrush rangeland. Photo by Jaepil Cho.

In what other ways are fires in sagebrush rangeland different from fires in forests? 

Joe: To put it simply: forests are a moisture-limited system. There’s always enough fuel in a forest to burn, and that fuel load is relatively stable over time. How much moisture is in that fuel determines whether a fire starts after an ignition. If the vegetation and litter are dry when there is an ignition source, then it’s likely the forest will burn. If the fuel is wet, then there’s less likelihood it will burn.

In contrast, sagebrush rangelands are fuel-limited systems. There is less burnable vegetation overall, and also more variability in fuel load each year, which means there isn’t always enough fuel to carry a large fire despite an ignition. The sagebrush range is made up mostly of perennial grasses and forbs, sagebrush and other shrubs, and, unfortunately, fine fuels like cheatgrass. But there is also bare ground in between those plants that makes it harder for fire to move across the landscape, especially in dry years. There must be enough fuel (grasses, forbs, and shrubs) to burn and enough fuel continuity to carry that fire across the landscape for a large fire to get going.

Photo of sagebrush range

Sagebrush range, like this Great Basin landscape in Oregon, is characterized by shrubs and grasses with patches of bare ground. These features make Great Basin sagebrush rangelands fuel-limited. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.

Walk us through your research and how vegetation data helped inform the maps you produced.

Jeremy: Joe is a wildlife biologist by training, not a fire specialist. He essentially modeled a habitat that was suitable for large rangeland wildfire, like one might model habitat suitability for a wildlife species. It was a clever way to get at this challenge.

Joe: Prior research had shown that wet years create periodic flushes of vegetation productivity in rangelands that lead to more fire the following year. But those analyses were fairly coarse in scale and didn’t approach the problem with forecasting in mind. We also didn’t have spatial vegetation datasets that would allow us to model these relationships and map fire risk at ecoregional scales until very recently.

Because rangeland fires have high consequences for sagebrush, I wanted to see if I could combine new, fine-scale and dynamic vegetation data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) with historic fire data from the MTBS and weather data to develop a model that could accurately predict the likelihood of a large fire across the Great Basin in advance of the fire season.

We were able to build a fairly accurate model, thanks largely to the RAP.

RAP gave me the dynamic, fine-scale vegetation data I needed; the MTBS data provided the historical fire data, and by using a “hindcasting” process, I was able to test the predictive ability of these forecasts at scale.

How can these maps help managers better plan and prepare for rangeland fires in the Great Basin?

Jeremy: Joe’s work highlights that herbaceous fuels drive the potential for large rangeland fires. To date, most fuels management in rangelands has been focused on woody species, which from a fire behavior standpoint makes sense. Woody species do produce hotter, more intense fires with higher flames that are harder to control and more dangerous for firefighters. But they don’t increase the potential that a large fire might occur in the first place.

Not only did Joe’s work highlight the importance of fine “grassy” fuels, but he also homed in on the fact that it’s really the previous year’s vegetation accumulation that drives large fire risk.

So right away, you have two important management shifts to consider: 1) fuels management should be focused not only on woody species, but also on herbaceous vegetation and fine fuels like cheatgrass, and 2) the current year’s vegetation growth doesn’t necessarily impact whether a rangeland fire might become large, it’s mostly about what happened the previous year.

Fire behavior is influenced by three factors: topography, weather, and fuel. We can’t manage topography, and while we can monitor weather, we can’t manage it. We can manage fuels. Joe’s research helps us better understand what fuels to manage and where to manage them. That is huge.

Beyond those basic shifts in how we think about managing large fire risk on rangelands in the Great Basin, we can start to integrate Joe’s fire probability maps into pre-fire preparedness and fuels management efforts. For example, with Joe’s preseason fire probability forecast maps,  managers can line up fire-fighting resources and position them where fire risk is highest or surgically implement fuel treatment practices like targeted grazing or cheatgrass eradication that can help reduce fuel loads. Public land managers also might implement closures or fire restrictions to help reduce the likelihood of human-caused ignitions in high-risk areas.

Fire probability, fire trend, times burned maps.

Maps showing mean fire probability 2000-2021, trend in fire probability 2000-2021, and times burned since 1988. Courtesy of Jeremy Maestas/NRCS-WLFW.

Since Joe’s research spans back to 1988, we gained additional perspective on which areas of the Great Basin are chronically at risk of large fires year after year and which ones aren’t. So, at broader, strategic-planning scales, we can leverage Joe’s maps to target treatments like roadside fuel breaks in areas that have a consistently high probability of a large fire. In areas where fire risk is typically low, we might implement different fuel management activities with a lighter touch on the land, such as early detection and rapid response to cheatgrass invasions. Implementing the right actions, in the right places, at the right time improves stakeholder buy-in and public support for the fuel management activities needed to reduce the odds of losing more sagebrush country to fire.


Read Joe Smith’s recent paper in the journal of Rangeland Ecology and Management that discusses his research.

Read Jeremy Maestas’s recent paper in the journal of Rangeland Ecology and Management that discusses management implications stemming from Smith’s annual Great Basin Fire Probability Maps.

Learn more about Joe Smith’s fire-prediction maps, and watch a short animated clip of Great Basin fire-probability over time here.

——————–

More Resources:

Read Joe Smith’s November, 2021 paper: “The elevational ascent and spread of exotic annual grass dominance in the Great Basin, USA” from the journal of Diversity and Distributions here.

Read an Ask an Expert interview with Joe about “The elevation ascent and spread of exotic annual grass dominance in the Great Basin, USA” here.


 

Creating Jobs Through Conservation in Southwest Montana

Participants in the Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership Youth Employment Program making fencing wildlife friendly. Photo courtesy of Simon Buzzard, National Wildlife Federation.


By Brianna Randall

In southwest Montana, the multi-generational family ranches are breathtaking, full of cowboys, and critters galore. The sprawling sagebrush valleys near Yellowstone National Park are some of the few places left in our country “where buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.”

Yet this iconic range in southwest Montana is threatened by the same suite of problems that afflict much of the grazing land in the American West: invasive weeds, encroaching trees, eroding streams, and increasing pressure to carve up and develop working ranches.

Restoring steams like this one improves rangeland resiliency and helps mitigate the effects of drought and wildfire. Photo courtesy of Sean Claffey, TNC.

One of the best ways to tackle these threats and keep ranches productive is through cooperative, voluntary conservation practices — better yet, ones that create jobs in the local community. Southwest Montana is setting a perfect example for how to keep working land healthy while also fueling its rural economies.

Doing good for the ground and the local community

The Southwest Montana Sagebrush Partnership (SMSP) was formed in 2018 by ranchers, business owners, federal and state agencies, local conservation districts and non-profit organizations looking to improve range health for people and wildlife. In just 4 years, the SMSP has leveraged more than $1.8 million to implement projects and more than $23.5 million for land protection:

  • Conserve 52,000 acres with easements to maintain working ranches
  • Restore 8 miles of streams and wet meadows
  • Modify 50 miles of fencing to benefit migrating wildlife
  • Remove encroaching conifers from 23,000 acres to preserve biodiversity and boost livestock forage

The most exciting part of SMSP is that it’s also creating jobs through conservation. This includes new start-up businesses focused on selling wood products, contractors doing year-round restoration work, and dozens of local youth employed in resource management.

Just some of the accomplishments of the SW Montana Sagebrush Partnership. Infographic from NRCS.

“I truly believe that if we can structure conservation projects creatively, we can develop local workforces,” says Sean Claffey, the coordinator for the SMSP, a position hosted by The Nature Conservancy. “When we recruit youth and young adults from our community, they learn what’s going on in their backyard. Plus, their parents and neighbors get more involved, too. If we want to maximize our impact and scale up conservation, we must figure out a way to connect it directly to as many people as possible and make it part of our culture.”

Working together to conserve a biome

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Montana provided seed funding to launch the Dillon Youth Employment Program (YEP) through the SMSP. Unlike AmeriCorps or the Conservation Corps—volunteer programs that offer youth an education stipend in exchange for work—the employees of YEP are paid a full wage while developing marketable skills.

Montana NRCS and NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife have also helped SMSP with on-the-ground conservation delivery on private ranches through its Environmental Quality Incentives Program and its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. This regional conservation effort is a prime example of how to accomplish cross-boundary, science-based conservation, using strategies prioritized in NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome.

“The diverse entities involved in SMSP make this conservation work not only possible, but a reality on a fairly large scale,” says Tom Watson, NRCS State Conservationist for Montana. “One focus of the partnership is to ensure conservation makes sense for rural communities as well as for the landscape and land managers.”

Sustaining more people and businesses in the future

This coming summer, the YEP will hire over 20 youth and young adults from southwest Montana who will rotate between projects like: installing wildlife-friendly fencing; building low-tech stream restoration structures out of stones or wood; build a new section of the Continental Divide Trail; and using hand tools to remove tree saplings encroaching onto pastures.

Field crews will also help document where unwanted plants like cheatgrass are invading, so the SMSP can develop a proactive strategy to fight back against invasive annual grasses. “We can train them in simple protocols, turn them loose, and let them help us get a feel for what’s out there on private and public lands,” says Claffey.

The SMSP is also ramping up its partnership with businesses that can sell the Douglas fir removed from sagebrush rangelands. Partners will haul small-diameter timber to a sort yard where it will be sent to local small mills, or sold for fencing materials, log-home siding or firewood.

Removing encroaching conifer trees like pinyon-juniper and Douglas fir restores rangeland health for sage grouse and other sagebrush dependent wildlife, improves forage for livestock, and provides jobs and materials for local business. Photos courtesy of Sean Claffey, TNC.

“The idea is to cover the cost of operations for removing encroaching trees, then put proceeds towards more conservation projects,” says Claffey. “Supporting businesses, sustaining natural resources, and keeping working lands working — it all goes together.”


 

Working Lands for Wildlife Website Development & Sage Grouse Initiative and Lesser Prairie Chicken Initiative Website Redesigns – Request for Proposal

Pheasants Forever, Inc., in conjunction with Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) invites qualified contractors to submit proposals to design and develop a new organizational website (wlw.org) and revamp two existing websites (sagegrouseinitiative.com and lpcinitiative.org).

*All applicants must complete and submit the RFP as instructed.*

Please download the Request for Proposal (RFP) for full specifications here. 

All inquiries regarding proposal submission may be directed to Sarah Marquart at 651-209-4920 or .

Deadline: 5:00 pm CDT, March 25, 2022

RFP also available through Pheasants Forever’s website here.

“Defend the Core” — Fighting back against rangeland invaders in sagebrush country

Defending healthy cores, like this one in Oregon, is the focus of WLFW’s “Defend the Core” strategy for maintaining healthy rangelands across the West. Photo: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media.


NRCS’ Working Lands for Wildlife is investing in big-picture, proactive ways to keep healthy sagebrush grazing lands from becoming infested with unwanted invasive annual grasses.

By Brianna Randall

Envision driving through a western ranch with the windows down. Tall green and gold bunchgrasses wave in the wind. Wildflowers bloom between waist-high shrubs. The sunny afternoon is alive with birdsong and buzzing insects, the air clean and scented with sage. This is what we call the intact core—large chunks of healthy, thriving native rangeland.

Wildflowers on the range, like the balsam roots, lupine, and paintbrush pictured here, create healthy soils and keep water on the land. Photo: Brianna Randall

Healthy, and productive, sagebrush rangeland with abundant wildflowers and native perennial grasses are more resilient to invasive annual grasses. Photo: Brianna Randall

But as you drive farther towards the horizon, you start to notice less green and fewer flowers as the ground turns shades of brown, tan, and purple. Beneath the sagebrush, the graceful long-lived bunchgrasses are now interspersed with short, drying grasses, their seeds pricking through your socks. This transition zone is where healthy range is giving way to invasive weeds like cheatgrass, ventenata, and medusahead.

Drive even further from the core, and unpleasant invasive annual grasses have choked out most native plants. Wildlife are few and far between. These weeds reduce forage for animals, degrade ecosystem health and resilience, and fuel more frequent wildfires. Rangelands this infested are much less productive for ranchers and wildlife—and extremely difficult to restore.

Characteristic sagebrush steppe rangeland where cheatgrass has invaded and choked out most of the desirable grasses and forbs. Photo by Jaepil Cho.

Luckily, people who depend on and care about America’s valuable sagebrush lands are banding together to fight back against unwanted invaders. Through Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is investing in a new, proactive strategy: First, defend the core. Second, grow the core. Third, mitigate impacts in heavily infested areas.

Flipping the script

If it sounds like battle tactics, that’s because western landowners are indeed engaged in a war on weeds, and have been for over a century. And a shift in strategy is overdue, since the status quo—reactive, piecemeal treatments once invasive annual grasses become a problem—hasn’t worked.

“In the past, we would go to the worst places first, which is like sending in an ambulance when the land is already in need of life-support,” said Jeremy Maestas, a USDA-NRCS ecologist.

Instead, WLFW is “flipping the script,” explains Maestas, to prioritize preventative care for healthy, intact places in order to keep them productive and expand them. “I think of it as providing annual checkups to keep the land thriving, instead of a last-ditch visit to the ER when it’s already a crisis.”

As invasive annual grasses take over more rangeland, they become more costly and difficult to remove.

Until recently, conservation practitioners lacked the technology to see the big picture of where the remaining intact rangelands remain, as well as where invading grasses are coming from and how fast they are infiltrating core areas. Breakthroughs in remote sensing and cloud computing have enabled scientists to produce detailed vegetation maps, along with easy-to-use tools like the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP). These maps and tools are finally giving landowners and resource managers the information they need about the condition of rangelands around them and empowering people to be more strategic and proactive in fighting weeds on a regional scale, rather than trying to save tiny islands.

WLFW is partnering with local, state, and federal managers to prioritize where and how to halt rangeland invaders by leveraging RAP’s vegetation data to map intact cores and see where invasives are taking hold. These maps serve as a basis for partners to develop a shared game plan for directing conservation investments.

Invasive annual grasses, like cheatgrass, are expanding across the West as shown in the graphic produced with the Rangeland Analysis Platform.

Defend the core, grow the core

Land managers have long known that it’s far more cost-effective and efficient to treat weeds early before they spread. The trick, however, is working in the right landscapes and simultaneously treating infestations on adjacent rangelands so invasive annual grasses don’t quickly re-invade.

Protecting core rangelands from cheatgrass benefits producers along with wildlife.

“These problems are contagious,” Maestas said. “You can spray cheatgrass in your backyard until the cows come home, but if all the neighboring lands around you are infested it’s an exercise in futility.”

Put more succinctly: “If there’s no seed, there’s no weed.”

In sagebrush country, the best way to keep out invading annual grasses is to prevent them from ever becoming established and to maintain a resilient, healthy native plant community that allows no room for incoming weeds.

“Job number one is to defend the cores,” Maestas said. “If we anchor our efforts here then move our way out, we’re less likely to get flanked by invasives.”

Defending cores means continually monitoring for any invasive annual grasses, and caring for native range plants through sustainable land management practices.

The next priority is to grow these cores by bolstering perennial plants and removing invasive seed sources on their periphery. In sagebrush landscapes, this often includes using herbicides to get rid of any invasive grasses and their seeds in the soil followed by re-planting native grasses, shrubs, and forbs where needed.

Finally, the strategy acknowledges the need to mitigate problems in heavily infested areas to reduce harm to human life and property. For instance, rather than trying to restore a large swath of cheatgrass back to sagebrush habitat—a costly and difficult endeavor—the emphasis should shift to protecting nearby communities from the hotter, more frequent wildfires caused by cheatgrass. Mitigation measures might include building fuel breaks, green strips, or targeted grazing to reduce the fine fuels (grasses) that spread wildfires.

Innovation and adaptation are also factors in the “Defend the Core” approach. This might include employing new, cutting-edge herbicides that reduce the seed source for several years instead of just one season. Another option is to encourage more flexible grazing practices so ranchers can put livestock in the right place at the right time to minimize the build-up of invasive annual grasses.

Hope in Action

WLFW’s “Defend the Core” approach is already being deployed in a handful of western states beleaguered by invasive grasses. Enlisting a collaborative partnership, Idaho’s Cheatgrass Challenge pioneered application of a statewide strategy to tackle invasive annual grasses. They were followed shortly thereafter by Oregon with the rollout of the SageCon Invasives Initiative. Launched in 2019 and 2021, respectively, both initiatives have already drawn in millions of dollars to help landowners reduce the threat of invasives on sagebrush rangeland. Regional partners, including the Western Governors’ Association and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, are helping share the “Defend the Core” recipe with other states and embed this approach in conservation strategies across sagebrush country.

WLFW is poised to help more states develop big-picture strategies to “Defend the Core”, guided by its framework for conservation action in the sagebrush biome. In addition, WLFW is investing Farm Bill conservation dollars on hundreds of ranches each year to fight back against invasive annual grasses and maintain healthy working sagebrush lands.

“This is a new, proactive path forward: save what’s intact and build out from there. It requires neighbors working together to pinpoint and protect the best rangelands left,” Maestas said. “This is how we get ahead of invasives instead of simply chasing the worst problems.”

This common strategy to protect—and grow—the best rangelands is also benefiting people and wildlife in the Great Plains, where the “Defend the Core” approach is keeping invading trees like eastern redcedar at bay. Read more here.


 

Publication Alert: A geographic strategy for cross-jurisdictional, proactive management of invasive annual grasses in Oregon

 


Oregon partners outline blueprint for proactive management of invasive annual grasses

Big-picture spatial technology allows landscape-scale management of rangeland threats

>>READ THE PAPER<<

In southeastern Oregon, nearly 18 million acres of sagebrush steppe provide habitat for wildlife and sustain ranching economies in a mix of federal, tribal, state, and private ownership. Like the rest the Great Basin, this incredible natural resource is threatened by invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass, medusahead, and ventenata. An estimated 4.1 million acres of Oregon’s sagebrush steppe are heavily impacted by these invaders and an additional 7.5 million acres are at risk.

An upcoming paper in the journal Rangelands, led by Megan Creutzburg (Institute for Natural Resources/Oregon State University) with coauthors from The Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, NRCS-Working Lands for Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and University of Montana, details a proactive strategy that crosses Oregon’s land ownership boundaries to manage this threat. Developed by the SageCon Partnership – a collaborative group coordinating actions to reduce threats to sagebrush and sage grouse in Oregon – the authors detail how the state leveraged spatial data to produce a new geographic strategy in support of its new Invasives Initiative that provides a spatially explicit framework for proactive management of invasive annual grasses: Defend the Core, Grow the Core, Mitigate Impacts. The effort builds upon similar work taking off in other western states, such as the Idaho Cheatgrass Challenge, and shows how the approach can be customized by state and local partners.

Past invasive annual grass management often focused on treating areas heavily impacted by these invaders. This reactive, emergency response hasn’t produced long-term results at the scale needed to adequately address this challenge. SageCon’s approach taps into the adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and focuses partners on proactive, preventative management in still-intact sagebrush landscapes that are not heavily impacted by invasive annuals – an approach that is more likely to be effective in the long run.

The geographic strategy leveraged remote-sensing rangeland data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) and NRCS soil survey data to identify core areas and account for biotic and abiotic factors that influence how a specific landscape are likely to respond to on-the-ground treatments.

Authors used this data to map landscape conditions across large and complex geographical scales, allowing them to identify relatively intact rangeland “cores” with healthy perennial plant cover. These cores are priorities for preventative management to protect them against annual grass invasions. Heavily invaded areas were also identified and mapped, highlighting where practitioners can work with communities to build adaptive capacity that mitigates annual grass-related impacts like frequent wildfire. Finally, transitioning regions between cores and areas of heavy infestation will help expand core areas and grow the amount of healthy and resilient rangelands.


Click on the image to read the paper.


The maps, supporting materials, technical documentation, and other related resources developed by SageCon cover the broad patchwork of land ownership in Oregon and further the Initiative’s primary goal of coordinating efforts across boundaries to achieve desired landscape-scale outcomes.

Importantly, the strategy itself does not provide answers or make difficult choices regarding specific management actions. Instead, it provides a conceptual framework for on-the-ground practitioners, as well as a unified vision for conservation investments. The strategy relies on local groups working together across boundaries to:

  • Defend cores through reducing the risk of annual grass invasion,
  • Grow cores by bolstering perennial plant communities and other strategies that improve the resilience of relatively intact landscapes adjacent to cores, and
  • Mitigate impacts by proactively managing for annual grass-generated crises like wildfire, lost grazing productivity, and collapsing wildlife habitat.

Collaborative efforts like Oregon’s SageCon Invasives Initiative use the “Defend the Core” approach to emphasize opportunities for proactive management that keep healthy rangelands intact. This same approach is a central tenant outlined in the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome, which focuses on addressing the top threats facing sagebrush rangeland, including invasive annual grasses.

The early view of this article is now available online as part of a special issue of Rangelands to be released later this spring. Titled “Changing with the range: Striving for ecosystem resilience in the age of invasive annual grasses” this issue is sponsored by the High Desert Partnership.

>>READ THE PAPER<<


Paper title: A geographic strategy for cross-jurisdictional, proactive management of invasive annual grasses in Oregon

Abstract: Invasive annual grasses pose a widespread threat to western rangelands, and a strategic and proactive approach is needed to tackle this problem. Oregon partners used new spatial data to develop a geographic strategy for the management of invasive annual grasses at landscape scales across jurisdictional boundaries. The geographic strategy considers annual and perennial herbaceous cover along with site resilience and resistance in categorizing areas into intact core, transitioning, and degraded areas. The geographic strategy provides 1) a conceptual framework for proactive management, building upon similar work recently begun across the Great Basin, and 2) multi-scale spatial products for both policymakers and local managers to identify strategic areas for investment of limited resources. These spatial products can be used by Oregon partners to generate a shared vision of success, facilitate proactive management to “defend and grow the core,” and collaboratively develop meaningful and realistic goals and strategies for the management of annual grasses at landscape scales.

Citation: Megan K. Creutzburg, Andrew C. Olsen, Molly A. Anthony, Jeremy D. Maestas, Jacqueline B. Cupples, Nicholas R. Vora, Brady W. Allred, A geographic strategy for cross-jurisdictional, proactive management of invasive annual grasses in Oregon, Rangelands, 2022, ISSN 0190-0528.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rala.2021.12.007