Author Archives: Greg Peters

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


 

Publication Alert: Defend the Core: Maintaining intact rangelands by reducing vulnerability to invasive annual grasses

 

 A new management strategy called “Defend the Core” is helping address the threat of invasive annual grasses at the scale needed to maintain healthy rangelands.


“Defend the Core” presents a new paradigm for tackling rangeland threats

A proactive path forward to protect healthy sagebrush rangelands from invasive annual grasses

>>READ THE PAPER<<

From the Great Plains to the Great Basin, an onslaught of invasive plants, including unwanted grasses like cheatgrass or woody species like eastern redcedar, are degrading rangeland health and agricultural productivity. A new paradigm in rangeland conservation and management is emerging to tackle this threat. Succinctly captured in the phrase “Defend the Core,” this approach leverages spatial data to focus rangeland management on proactive and preventative efforts that address large-scale threats within otherwise intact landscapes, or “cores.”

An upcoming paper in the journal Rangelands, supported by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW), and authored by Jeremy Maestas (NRCS West Technology Support Center), with support from Mark Porter (Oregon Department of Natural Agriculture), Dirac Twidwell (University of Nebraska), and Matt Cahill (The Nature Conservancy), further defines what the “Defend the Core” concept means for addressing the threat of invasive annual grasses in sagebrush country.

By applying a common vulnerability-based model to threat reduction, the authors describe how land managers can reduce the risk of annual grass invasion by implementing guiding actions at the scales needed to perpetuate healthy and resilient sagebrush rangelands.

Satellite-based technology is key to providing critical landscape context missing from past local management, allowing rangeland managers to visualize rangeland vegetation cover at a variety of scales, from pastures to entire biomes. This allows managers to identify large and intact rangeland cores where invasion is minimal and proactive and preventative measures can still be taken to reduce risks.

Understanding this landscape context allows managers to focus the right actions in the right place at the right time. For example, eliminating small infestations within a large, intact core landscape can help managers more effectively and efficiently prevent those infestations from expanding into the surrounding landscape. Conversely, attempting to save isolated islands of uninvaded lands in a landscape dominated by annual grasses is unlikely to have long-term success and requires different crisis mitigation strategies.


 

Click on the image to read the paper.

 

 


Once cores are identified, successfully defending cores relies on understanding how vulnerable the land is to annual grasses and taking appropriate steps to address each component. The authors provide three guiding actions to assess vulnerability:

1) Reduce exposure to invasive seed sources. Without seed sources, annual grasses cannot invade rangeland cores. Exposure to seeds is the primary point of vulnerability that leads to annual grass conversion. Eliminating seed sources is the most effective way to reduce this risk.

2) Improve resilience and resistance by promoting perennial plants. The sensitivity of sagebrush rangelands to invasive annual grasses is well understood. This information can be leveraged to further reduce vulnerability. For instance, warmer and drier sites are more susceptible to invasion than cooler moister sites, but perennial grasses play a critical role in minimizing invasion as well. The authors argue long-term solutions lie in integrated approaches that manage for desired perennials and against invasive annuals.

3) Build capacity to adapt to changing conditions. Improving the ability of communities and partnerships to adapt to changing conditions and respond with appropriate actions in a timely manner is critical to minimizing impacts. This work includes enhancing the ability to learn and transfer knowledge quickly between land managers, scientists, and agencies, and providing flexible decision-making structures to empower local partners to be nimble and take action.


Click on the image to read the paper.



 


Fortunately, roughly 70 percent of rangelands in the sagebrush biome still have relatively low amounts of annual grass cover, providing ample opportunity to implement the Defend the Core approach if we act today. Several statewide and regional efforts have already begun applying this approach to address invasive annuals across ownership boundaries, including:

The Defend the Core approach also lies at the heart of NRCS Working Lands for Wildlife’s frameworks for conservation action in the grassland and sagebrush biomes, which seeks to address invasive annual grasses and other primary threats to native grasslands and shrublands of the western United States.

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

>>READ THE PAPER<<


Paper title: Defend the core: Maintaining intact rangelands by reducing vulnerability to invasive annual grasses

Abstract: New geographic strategies provide the landscape context needed for effective management of invasive annual grasses in sagebrush country. Identifying and proactively defending intact rangeland cores from annual grass invasion is a top priority for management. Minimizing the vulnerability of rangeland cores to annual grass conversion includes reducing exposure to annual grass seed sources, reducing sensitivity by promoting perennials, and building the adaptive capacity of local communities to respond to the problem.

Citation: Jeremy D. Maestas, Mark Porter, Matt Cahill, Dirac Twidwell, Defend the core: Maintaining intact rangelands by reducing vulnerability to invasive annual grasses, Rangelands, 2022, ISSN 0190-0528.

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rala.2021.12.008


 

New Year, New Connections, New Opportunities

Western Working Lands for Wildlife’s efforts are addressing threats across the Great Plains and the sagebrush sea, two of the largest biomes in North America.


If you’ve followed the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative (LPCI), or Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) over the past decade, you’ve doubtless heard the following phrases: Win-win solutions. Voluntary conservation. Incentive-based action.

You’ve probably also heard that our work is science-driven, partnership-based, and proactive. These aren’t just taglines; they are the very foundation of our work across the country and especially in the West where America’s iconic rangelands support ranchers and rural communities, provide wildlife habitat, and store carbon.

WLFW bridges wildlife conservation with the people who are supported by these landscapes. As 2021 recedes and we march into 2022, we’re doubling down on our proven approach to conserving the West’s working rangelands for people and wildlife.

cows and sage grouse hens sharing wet meadow ken miracle

Across the West, WLFW is showing how conservation benefits both wildlife and producers. Photo: Ken Miracle.

In April 2021, we released two Frameworks for Conservation Action, one for the sagebrush biome and one for the Great Plains grasslands biome, two of the most imperiled and important ecosystem types in North America. These frameworks serve as the NRCS’s continuing contribution to voluntary conservation of western rangelands with the people who live and work in these biomes. The new frameworks were built on past achievements of SGI and LPCI and provide a collective approach to target the most severe and large-scale threats causing biome-level impacts. Each framework also serves as NRCS’ ongoing contributions to efforts like the Sagebrush Conservation Strategy administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the collaboratively developed Central Grasslands Roadmap.

True to our collaborative approach, NRCS state conservationists and staff hosted strategy sessions wherein their local partnerships identified threats to address, honed geographic focus areas, and generated estimates of acreage goals and resource needs. The WLFW team—as part of NRCS’ Areawide Planning, Science and Technology, and Outcomes branches—crafted these new frameworks, provided emerging technologies and spatial data, and led technical sessions to train staff and partners.

These frameworks provide a common vision and coordination to address resource concerns and ecosystem threats across state boundaries, along with new scientific tools that provide unprecedented opportunities to develop strategic approaches to combat these issues, especially when combined with on-the-ground landowner and rancher expertise.

While sagebrush country and the grasslands of the Great Plains may look different to the casual observer, they share a striking number of similarities. Two of the biggest threats facing each biome are the same: loss of native habitat to woody species expansion and to land-use conversion. Both are imperiled landscapes, yet both contain some of the most intact and resilient examples of rangelands in the world. And both are rooted in long-standing and hard-working ranching cultures.

These similarities drive our updated conservation approach in both landscapes as articulated in the frameworks. No longer are we focusing solely on a focal wildlife species, even though wildlife conservation still undergirds all our work. Our updated approach focuses on the health and resiliency of these entire biomes by expanding our partnerships and efforts to proactively address threats while ensuring that both wildlife and people benefit from our conservation investments. Between the Great Plains and sagebrush country, we have committed to reducing threats on more than 10 million acres of working rangelands.

In both biomes, spatial technology delivered through the Rangeland Analysis Platform is

The innovative Rangeland Analysis Platform is informing how WLFW prioritizes where to work across the West.

providing new opportunities for landscape-scale conservation. This innovative satellite-based technology allows us to “see” rangelands like never before, and it is at the core of all our threat-based strategies, whether woody species encroachment in the Great Plains or annual invasive grasses in the Great Basin.

We’re still working in lesser prairie-chicken habitat while leveraging what we’ve learned from LPCI to expand across the entire Plains through the Great Plains Grassland Initiative. This updated effort is laser-focused on addressing woody species encroachment, led by local efforts in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

In sagebrush country, we’re using spatial technology to address threats in core habitats where sage grouse live and where we have partners and landowners engaged in our efforts. Whether addressing annual invasive grasses, woody species, land-use conversion, or mesic restoration, our focus on core habitats ensures that we keep the most intact and valuable lands healthy.

Within both biomes, WLFW capitalizes on the coproduction of science. This approach includes the joint creation of new knowledge based on interactions between researchers and affected stakeholders. Coproduction in rangeland conservation makes science more actionable by engaging stakeholders to share in both design and implementation, striving to achieve better outcomes for ranching and wildlife. As we expand our work, ensuring better outcomes and producing actionable science will continue to be a keystone of our overall approach.

Keeping rangelands resilient and productive is one of the best ways we can help mitigate the effects of a changing climate. Proactive and climate-smart strategies like keeping rangelands “green side up” through targeted conservation easements, reducing the risk of severe fires by removing encroaching conifer trees, combating invasive annual grasses, and restoring wet meadows and other riparian areas are all part of our overall approach. Globally, rangelands store 12 percent of terrestrial carbon making these efforts even more important.

We focus our efforts where there are intact cores, where wildlife live, and where we have willing partners.

Guided by our frameworks and our commitment to collaborative, voluntary, win-win conservation, we are expanding our efforts to address the most significant threats facing two of the largest biomes in North America – the 175-million-acre sagebrush sea and the native grasslands that still comprise much of the 450-million-acre Great Plains. With new technologies that help us prioritize where to work, new approaches that focus our limited resources where they will have the most impact, and new connections that help us leverage the power of partnerships, we’re looking forward to new opportunities in the year ahead.


 

Beaver ponds provide a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton

Beaver Breaks: How Beavers (and low-tech riparian restoration) Help Reduce Impacts From Fire

Beaver ponds produce great wet habitat which then provides a refuge for fish and wildlife in a burned landscape near Hailey, Idaho. Photo: Joe Wheaton


Beavers once lived in nearly every watershed in the U.S. Their constant engineering created vast wetlands that provided critically important habitat for a diverse array of wildlife and plant species.

Yet many people regard beavers as a nuisance, since their dams can flood roads and clog irrigation ditches. That mentality—along with extensive trapping that took place prior to modern regulations—led to a marked decline in beaver populations over the past two centuries. Without beavers around, the dams they built washed away, along with the valuable ecosystem services they provided.

A beaver swims above a recently installed beaver dam analog structure in Idaho. Photo: Eric Winford

A beaver swims above a recently installed beaver dam analog structure in Idaho. Photo: Eric Winford

Today, practitioners are restoring the West’s creeks by mimicking the same types of structures beavers once built. These “low-tech, process-based” mesic restoration practices slow down water, allowing it to spread across the landscape where plants and wildlife can use it. Over time, these structures, called beaver dam analogs or pole-assisted log structures, can even create opportunities for beavers to move in and build on the human structures.

In addition to improving habitat for wildlife and boosting productivity of riparian vegetation communities, these wetlands create important fire breaks and refuge for wildlife fleeing wildfire, as detailed in this paper by Emily Fairfax from 2020.

This image is from the “Low-tech, Process-based Restoration of Riverscapes Pocket Manual” created by WLFW and Utah State University. It highlights how beaver activity helps reduce the impacts from wildfire and create areas of refuge for wildlife during fire events. Click on the image to access the Pocket Manual.

A new documentary from PBS highlights this important benefit and how beavers can help build climate resiliency.

Click the image above to watch this great PBS documentary about how beavers help reduce impacts from wildfire and climate change.

Of course, this isn’t “news” to Working Lands for Wildlife staff and to other “beaver believers” with whom we work. We’ve known for years that beaver-mimicking low-tech restoration boosts riparian plant productivity. In fact, this Science to Solutions from 2018 highlights how low-tech restoration increased plant productivity by 25% and kept plants greener longer during the summer season.

That report is just one of a suite of studies demonstrating the benefits of low-tech mesic restoration practices. Read about all them in this recent post.

Of course, we don’t simply study the effects of low-tech mesic restoration, we partner with a diverse set of groups across the West to train practitioners on these techniques, empowering them to implement these life-sustaining efforts on creeks and streams throughout sagebrush country.


More Beaver Resources and Reading

Science to Solutions: Conserving Wet Habitats Keeps Western Rangelands Resilient

Nature’s Engineers: How Beavers Boost Streamflows and Restore Habitat – National Wildlife Federation Blog (reposted with permission)

Thinking Like a Beaver – Bugle Magazine Story (Bugle is the magazine of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, excerpt reposted with permission)

Webinar: Living with Beavers | Tools for Coexistence

Materials, Presentations, and Modules from WLFW’s Four-day, Virtual Workshop on Low-Tech, Process-Based Riparian Restoration co-hosted with Utah State University


 

Ask an Expert: The Ascent and Spread of Annual Invasive Grasses in the Great Basin

Cheatgrass, one annual invasive grass, is spreading to higher elevations and more northerly aspects, according to new research by WLFW-affiliated scientists. Photo: Jennifer Strickland, NRCS.


Across the West, productive rangelands that support diverse wildlife populations and rural communities are under threat from annual invasive grasses. Unlike native vegetation, these grasses offer little value as wildlife habitat or livestock forage. Further, as annual invasive grasses displace native vegetation, they fuel more severe wildland fires, deplete soil nutrients and water, and create monocultures where annual grasses alone dominate the landscape.

In the Great Basin, which covers most of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and California, annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass, medusahead, and ventenata, have degraded more than 40,000 square miles of productive sagebrush rangelands. For perspective, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, the largest U.S. refuge, covers 30,000 square miles.

Understanding how these exotic and unwanted species are moving across the landscape is critically important to maintaining productive rangelands for wildlife and livestock producers. New findings from Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) researcher Joe Smith shed light on where invasive annual grasses are spreading across three eco-regions in the Great Basin.

In this Ask an Expert, Smith discusses how his research can help land managers proactively address this threat before annual invasive grasses displace native vegetation, push out sagebrush-dependent wildlife, and threaten rural economies dependent on productive, resilient rangelands.

>>Read the paper<<


In the opening lines of your paper’s abstract, you note the transition from native vegetation to exotic annual grasses is “self-reinforcing.” Will you explain what that means?

What I mean by “self-reinforcing” is that exotic annual grasses have a habit of sticking around once they get established in an area. They do this by altering the fire regime of the communities they invade. These grasses are highly flammable, they fill in the bare ground gaps that usually exist between native perennial grasses and shrubs, and they dry out very early in the summer.

Once this happens, fires can more easily ignite and travel through these areas. The invasive grasses are tolerant of burning every few years, but the native vegetation—especially sagebrush—is poorly adapted to this frequency of fire. You get a positive feedback loop where more exotic grasses lead to more fire, which then leads to more exotic grasses, and so on. Once this pattern is established, it’s very difficult to recover those native plants and get back to a “normal” fire regime.

Rangelands with cheatgrass infestations are twice as likely to burn in a wildfire, since the annual invasive grass dries out early, ignites easily, and spreads fire quickly. This adds carbon to the atmosphere and reduces the carbon-storage capacity of native plants. Photo courtesy of Kari Greer, USFWS.

Cheatgrass, one of the most widespread invasive annual grasses, has been present in North America for more than a century; what makes it such a severe threat now?

Cheatgrass was a severe threat 100 years ago. People like Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife conservation, recognized this threat and tried to raise the alarm. But the true destructive potential of cheatgrass has come to the forefront in the last 10-15 years with the emergence of “mega-fires” in western rangelands. Since 1984, eight wildfires have grown to more than a quarter of a million acres in the Great Basin. All eight of those mega-fires happened after 2007. Numerous factors are probably responsible for this increased fire activity, but the massive expansion of cheatgrass and other exotic annual grasses has played a central role.

What makes your research different from other research into annual invasive species?

The main factor making our research new and exciting is continuity and coverage over time and space. This is the magic of working with data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) that provides spatially comprehensive, annual, rangeland monitoring data across all western US rangelands. This powerful data can be organized and delivered so that managers can understand vegetation conditions at a resolution appropriate to inform cross-scale assessments. We don’t just see a snapshot of the problem at a specific point in time, but instead, we get to watch change unfold like a movie over the last 30 years. That gives us insights into the dynamics of this ecosystem transformation process that would be unattainable with a field-based study.

Your research found the rapid expansion of annual invasive grasses in the last two decades was “associated with a broadening topographic niche…consistent with predicted effects of a warming climate.” Will you unpack that?

There’s a pretty solid foundation of experimental field research showing that cold temperature and snowpack are factors that limit where cheatgrass and other exotic annual grasses can flourish. Higher elevations and north-facing slopes have been considered fairly safe from major infestations for this reason.

But the Great Basin, like most of the western US, has been gradually getting warmer. The winters are warming, and the summers are getting hotter and drier. Climate change is expected to open up a bunch of new high-elevation habitat for these exotic annual grasses while at the same time weakening the ability of the native plants to compete and resist invasion. Sure enough, when we looked at where these grasses have become dominant over the last 30 years, we found that they’ve gradually moved into higher elevations and onto more north-facing slopes, just as predicted.

Figure 3 from Smith’s paper. Click image to read the paper.

In 2019, USDA’s NRCS in Idaho launched the “Cheatgrass Challenge,” a proactive, partnership-driven, statewide effort to tackle annual invasive grasses by focusing on “core areas” where grasses haven’t yet dominated. How does your research help identify these core areas?

The first step in our research was identifying areas where cheatgrass or other annual grasses have, essentially, already outcompeted native vegetation. That, alone, is useful information as managers strategically identify where to work—excluding those areas already too far gone. But the more important insight is that the situation is very dynamic, both because the invasion process is ongoing for many of these species and because the warming climate is steadily changing what areas are vulnerable and what areas are not. Just because areas above 5,000 feet in elevation have been relatively safe in the past doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be safe in the future. When managers identify core areas, they need to think about what those places will look like another 30 years down the road and what that means for vulnerability to invasion.

If you could leave readers with one key message from your research, what would it be?

The most important takeaway is that invasive annual grasses are on the rise (literally!…they are moving up in elevation), and they are expanding fast, which means we need to get serious and strategic about dealing with them if we don’t want the whole Great Basin to convert to an annual grassland. It’s already happened to grasslands in California, and it can happen to grasslands across the entire West if we don’t do something to stop it.

>>Read the paper<<

Meet the Expert

What drives your interest in rangelands and, particularly, sagebrush rangelands?

SGI science team researcher Joe Smith

Working Lands for Wildlife researcher Joe Smith.

I believe there are two kinds of people in this world: people who get uncomfortable deep in the woods and people who get uncomfortable out in the open. I’m the former type. I grew up right around the crest of the Cascades in Oregon, and I always found I naturally rolled eastward toward the open sagebrush country.

How do you decide what to research and what questions or topics you want to explore?

I’m lucky to have supervisors and funders that give me the latitude to coproduce science that informs management. They give me broad questions and general goals, and I can be pretty creative as I color roughly between those lines.  I like asking questions that better inform strategic implementation of conservation. This analysis was one of those.

What was the last book you read?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Kahneman constantly questions how we know what we think we know.


Read another Ask an Expert about “Why Is Cheatgrass Bad

Read more about the Cheatgrass Challenge, launched by the USDA-NRCS in Idaho in 2019.


 

Cheatgrass is an annual invasive plant that crowds out native plants in sagebrush range.

Publication Alert: Annual Invasive Grasses Spreading Through Great Basin to Higher Elevations and Northern Aspects

Working Lands for Wildlife research is showing that annual invasive grasses are moving up in elevation and to more northern aspects throughout the Great Basin.


>>READ THE STUDY<<

 

Sweeping sagebrush and salt desert shrublands typify the Great Basin – a 200,000-square-mile landscape that encompasses much of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and California. Across this broad geography – a mix of privately owned ranches interspersed with public lands – invasive annual grasses are displacing native perennial vegetation. New research supported by Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW) quantifies the spread of this threat.

Displacing native plants with annual grasses like cheatgrass, medusahead, and ventanata, reduces forage productivity and carbon storage, decreases wildlife habitat, and increases the threat of wildfires. Understanding the extent and spread of these annual invasive grasses is key to crafting a landscape-scale approach for maintaining these productive and resilient rangelands.

Lead author Joe Smith, a WLFW-affiliated researcher at the University of Montana, used recently developed remote sensing-based rangeland monitoring data from the Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP) to produce yearly maps of annual grass-dominated vegetation communities from 1990-2020. With these images, Smith and his team quantified the rate of spread of annual grasses and characterized changes in the distribution (elevation and aspect) of those transitioning areas.

The team documented a more than eight-fold increase in annual grass-dominated areas since 1990. In 2020, annual invasive grasses dominated approximately one-fifth of the Great Basin. Smith also determined annual grasses were spreading to higher elevations and to slopes that faced a generally northern direction.

Through the Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome [LINK TO FRAMEWORK], WLFW works to defend relatively uninvaded sagebrush cores from annual grass conversion and expand them through restoration to maintain productive working lands that are resilient to fire and resistant to invasive annuals.

WLFW’s approach for tackling this threat relies on statewide maps identifying large, intact core areas with relatively low, or no, annual grass invasion. Core areas serve as anchor points for conservation action and inform a proactive strategy for management: Defend the Core, Grow the Core, Mitigate Impacts.

Smith’s research reiterates the urgency to implement preventative measures for intact, yet vulnerable, landscapes as annual grasses continue to invade the Great Basin and other rangelands across the American West.



STUDY TITLE, ABSTRACT, CITATION, AND PERMANENT LINK

Title: The Elevational Ascent and Spread of Exotic Annual Grass Dominance in the Great Basin, USA

Abstract: In the western US, sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) and salt desert shrublands are rapidly transitioning to communities dominated by exotic annual grasses, a novel and self-reinforcing state that threatens the economic sustainability and conservation value of rangelands. Climate change is predicted to favor annual grasses, potentially pushing transitions to annual grass dominance into higher elevations and north-facing aspects. We sought to quantify expansion of annual grass-dominated vegetation communities along topographic gradients over the past several decades.

We documented more than an eight-fold increase in annual grass-dominated area since 1990, occurring at an average rate of >2,300 km2 yr-1 (0.6% of the area of Great Basin rangelands). In 2020, annual grasses dominated approximately one-fifth (>77,000 km2) of Great Basin rangelands. This rapid expansion was associated with a broadening topographic niche, with widespread movement into higher elevations and north-facing aspects consistent with predicted effects of a warming climate. Main conclusions: More than a century after first appearing in the region, exotic annual grasses continue to proliferate and establish dominance in new environments across the Great Basin. Accelerated, strategic intervention is critically needed to conserve vulnerable sagebrush and salt desert shrub communities not yet heavily invaded. In this era of warming, future climate provides important context for selecting from among alternative management actions and judging long-term prospects of success.

Citation: Smith, J. T., Allred, B. W., Boyd, C. S., Davies, K. W., Jones, M. O., Kleinhesselink, A. R., Maestas, J. D., Morford, S. L., & Naugle, D. E. (2021). The elevational ascent and spread of exotic annual grass dominance in the Great Basin, USA. Diversity and Distributions, 00, 1– 14. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13440

Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.13440


 

Warners

Restoring the Sagebrush Sea: The Warner Mountains Project


For eight years, the Warner Mountains in southeastern Oregon served as a laboratory for university scientists studying the effects of strategic, large-scale conifer removal on sage grouse. This page compiles the studies, interviews, videos, and other products produced from this first-of-its-kind, long-term research effort.


Background: The rugged and remote Warner Mountains run from northern California into southeastern Oregon. Like many regions in the West, the Warners are comprised of public and private lands, and grazing plays an important role in the economies of the small towns that dot the landscape. Unfortunately, decades of woody plant encroachment had degraded much of this landscape, pushing out sagebrush-dependent wildlife, reducing livestock forage, and depleting precious water supplies.

In 2011, the USDA-NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) partnered with the Bureau of Land

Map of study area in the Warner Mountains of Oregon. Credit: Andrew Olsen.

Management (BLM) and local landowners to begin a large-scale conifer removal project in the southeast Oregon portion of the Warner range. Additionally, the partners invited university scientists to study how sage grouse responded to the conifer removal treatments.

Over the next eight years, the partners strategically removed conifer trees on more than 100,000 acres of this landscape while leaving trees in place on an 82,000-acre “control” portion of the area.

Learn more about this project, the research it produced, and the stories of the people involved below.

 

 

 


Restoring the Sagebrush Sea details the successful outcomes of tree removal in the Warner Mountains for sage grouse and local ranchers. Click on the image above or here to learn how this work is informing other projects throughout the American West.


Explore this awesome storymap produced by NRCS Oregon that tells the Warner Mountains story!

 


Peer-reviewed science

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SGI Posts and Interviews


Farmers.gov blog post about rancher John O’Keeffe’s experience partnering on this project

 


>>Read more posts and research about the effects conifers have on sagebrush range and the benefits of removing them here.<<