Author Archives: Hannah Ryan

Wind Erosion Following Wildfire in Great Basin Ecosystems

Great Basin Fact Sheet No. 6: Wind Erosion Following Wildfire in Great Basin Ecosystems

By: Matthew J. Germino


Wind erosion is a problem in Great Basin shrublands, particularly following large wildfires or other disturbances that remove the protective cover plants provide to soil. This fact sheet aims to introduce the basic patterns, concepts, and terminology of wind erosion and to provide a basic framework for erosion risk assessment and response.

Soil structure and function are important to the resistance, resilience, and overall function of semiarid ecosystems of the Great Basin, and soil erosion can have large ecosystem effects. Much of the Great Basin is flat or gently sloped, so erosion is often wind driven (aeolian or eolian) rather than water driven. Wind erosion occurs semi-regularly in playas, sand dunes, some salt desert sites, and croplands, but shrub and grasslands of the Great Basin usually do not have appreciable wind erosion in their undisturbed state.

In Brief:

  • Although soil stability is a major concern follow­ing wildfire, efforts to monitor, report, and evaluate wind erosion are rare. These actions are needed to respond to wind erosion events and to enable adap­tive management.
  • Wind erosion occurs in a variety of forms and impacts ranging from innocuous to severe, such as removal of topsoil, and degradation of downwind air, water, and land resources.
  • A variety of indirect and direct methods can be used to measure soil stability, such as time-lapse photog­raphy, erosion bridges or pins, collectors that trap soil from passing air, and soil pedon classifications.
  • Managers may reduce erosion impacts by avoid­ing destabilizing burned areas that are prone to ero­sion through treatments that further disturb soil or prolong bare soil exposure, and by avoiding putting investments like seedings and plantings where wind erosion may degrade them.

Click here or on the image below to download a PDF of the full fact sheet.

wind erosion

This fact sheet is part of the Great Basin Fact Sheet Series compiled collaboratively by WAFWA, USFS, BLM, NRCS, RMRS, ARS, USGS, and FWS. The series provides land managers with brief summaries of current science concepts and management strategies related to conservation and restoration of the sagebrush sea.

Management of Aspen in a Changing Environment

Great Basin Fact Sheet No. 12: Management of Aspen in a Changing Environment

By: Douglas J. Shinneman, Anne S. Halford, Cheri Howell, Kevin D. Krasnow, and Eva K. Strand


This fact sheet provides land managers with information that can help them identify different aspen types, assess the condition of aspen stands, and prioritize stands for restoration using appropriate treatments. The potential for aspen habitat loss may be particularly pronounced in the Great Basin. Aspen is the only broadleaved, deciduous tree species of significant areal extent here, but it occupies only about one percent of this generally arid ecoregion. Although aspen is often considered an early successional species, aspen forms both seral (transitional) and stable (persistent or “pure”) communities. In seral communities, especially those in landscapes with longer-lived conifer species, disturbance plays an important role in the persistence of aspen. Fire, in particular, is critical for aspen renewal in many seral stands, and it can create mosaics of aspen- and conifer-dominated communities that are dynamic across landscapes and over time.

In Brief:

  • Aspen communities are biologically rich and ecologically valuable, yet they face myriad threats, including changing climate, altered fire regimes, and excessive browsing by domestic and wild ungulates.
  • Recognizing the different types of aspen communities that occur in the Great Basin, and being able to distinguish between seral and stable aspen stands, can help managers better identify restoration needs and objectives.
  • Identifying key threats to aspen regeneration and persistence in a given stand or landscape is important to designing restoration plans, and to selecting appropriate treatment types.
  • Although some aspen stands will need intensive treatment (e.g., use of fire) to persist or remain healthy, other stands may only require the modification of current management practices (e.g., reducing livestock browsing) or may not require any action at all (e.g., self-replacing stable aspen communities).

Click here or on the image below to download a PDF of the full fact sheet.


This fact sheet is part of the Great Basin Fact Sheet Series compiled collaboratively by WAFWA, USFS, BLM, NRCS, RMRS, ARS, USGS, and FWS. The series provides land managers with brief summaries of current science concepts and management strategies related to conservation and restoration of the sagebrush sea.


The Sage-Grouse’s Next Dance | What the Recent Decision Means for the Bird and Conservation

This op-ed first appeared on the Cool Green Science Blog and was written by Holly Copeland, a Spatial Scientist/Landscape Ecologist with the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

The first text came in at 5:02am, from my brother in-law in Texas:

“So what is your take on the sage-grouse ruling?”

Similar texts and calls followed from other friends and relatives.

Why all the early morning interest in a bird? Because that Tuesday, September 22, the Department of Interior announced they would not be listing the Greater Sage-Grouse, a bird native to America’s sagebrush country, as an endangered species.

The day of the announcement was a strange one. This beautiful dancing bird has been in my thoughts almost daily for the past nine years, as it has also been for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other scientists who are working on sage-grouse.  But suddenly, because of all the national new coverage, this species was now in the consciousness of many other Americans, too.

So my response to their questions whether it was a good sage-grouse decision: in short, yes. But, of course, there are caveats and subtleties.

Make no mistake sagebrush country is in great peril. The scientific weight of evidence is overwhelming.  Sage-grouse numbers are a tiny fraction of historical counts, and populations of other species that live in this habitat, such as mule deer, pronghorn, and pygmy rabbits, are down as well. These numbers are low because the entire system is slowly converting to one overrun by invasive species, rampant wildfire, and little refuge from the presence of humans.

The peril to the sagebrush isn’t just energy development or ranchers or urban sprawl. It’s all of us using the sagebrush ecosystem— the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts.” We’ve made it our home, played in it, drilled it, grazed it, allowed invasive species to proliferate, and not paid enough attention to the consequences.

Running through the sagebrush just this morning, I passed through a patch of cheatgrass, a flammable non-native grass that has invaded native sagebrush stands throughout the West. This kind of place, a flat opening in the sagebrush, may very well have been a lek site forty years ago, but was abandoned when cheatgrass and residential development encroached (a lek is a breeding area where male grouse dance and parade to attract female partners). Cheatgrass is terribly pernicious. Once it dominates a sagebrush patch it sets up an unnatural fire cycle that makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to restore sagebrush back to its native condition.

A non-native grass, cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable.

A non-native grass, cheatgrass is harming sage-grouse by making its habitat much more flammable.

On the heels of these building challenges, eight years ago we began an attempt to heal these cuts through the largest landscape-scale conservation effort in US history, spurred by the threat of an endangered species listing for sage-grouse.

Western states responded by crafting plans to conserve sage-grouse. For years these plans were drafted and revised. There were countless meetings. Scientists debated buffers, thresholds to disturbance, and indirect effects such as noise; they published a massive number of studies on everything from how much development grouse can tolerate to how far they migrate to wintering areas. Someone even made a robot grouse.

Initiatives like the Natural Resource Conservation Service-led Sage Grouse Initiative launched efforts to increase the health of the sagebrush ecosystem by enrolling ranchers in programs to increase the sustainability of their ranching operations and benefit grouse, made new funds available for voluntary conservation easements, and supported research to understand the benefits of these actions.

At the heart of this effort was collaboration – a coming together of citizens and scientists from industry, government, non-profit, and the private sectors.

The Department of Interior’s decision of “not warranted” for greater sage-grouse is right not because the sagebrush system doesn’t need our help. Quite the opposite – truly in the next few decades we could lose this ecosystem to cheatgrass, fire, and development.

But the decision is right because collaborative conservation is the only strategy likely to work. We desperately need an all-hands-on-deck approach where those who work with these lands daily – largely ranchers and federal land managers – are critical partners that understand the danger, believe that they can succeed, and have backing at the highest levels of government to make decisions that support sagebrush health.

CO_Not Warranted_Dave Naugle

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spoke on September 22 at the event announcing the sage grouse would not be listed.

At the announcement Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell suggested the “epic collaborations” of the sage-grouse efforts represent a new model for conservation in America. I agree.

While I can find gaps and weaknesses in these plans, I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This is a favorite saying of my friend Paul Hansen, who was a conservation champion of the Clean Air Act in the 1960s—an era when we seemed to know how to do collaborative conservation better. Maybe we took another step in that direction this past week.

And so now begins the next chapter in this saga: taking action to implement all the plans, securing full funding from Congress to support these actions, and following up on our progress.

The “not warranted” decision for sage-grouse was based in part upon the Bureau of Land Management, other federal agencies, and states being able to take action to implement protections written in the sagebrush habitat conservation plans they submitted previously. If they can’t implement these measures because Congress prevents them or doesn’t provide the proper funding, then this whole process of science, sweat, and tears will have been for naught. At that point the Department of Interior would then almost certainly have to list the sage-grouse as endangered, and prescriptive limits would necessarily be placed on both federal and private lands to protect sage-grouse.

Lastly, monitoring is critical.  Scientists who previously studied what sage-grouse need to survive will now have to monitor sage-grouse populations to determine whether or not the actions put in place are working.

And so we begin a new phase in the unfolding sage-grouse story— rest assured we scientists will be looking to track and monitor their numbers.  But we are counting on a collective vision of restored health for the sagebrush ecosystem, and security for the treasured wildlife it harbors.  Nothing short of that will save this bird in the heart of the American West.

Click here to read this on the Cool Green Science blog.

New Guide Available | Sagebrush Bird Communities in the Intermountain West

A new tool is available for land managers in sagebrush country. The Sagebrush Bird Habitat Guide, created by several of our partners, provides information on breeding habitat used by several bird species commonly found in sagebrush communities throughout the Intermountain West.

Scientists teamed up from Partners in Flight, American Bird Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, and Point Blue Conservation Science to create this field reference guide. It allows land managers to quickly assess potential bird species’ use of sagebrush habitats relative to general habitat type, shrub canopy cover, and shrub height.

In particular, the guide shows how species’ habitat relationships overlap with the habitat requirements of Greater sage-grouse. Most bird species use similar habitat for breeding across the range–conserving these habitat types is the focus of the Sage Grouse Initiative, as well as our partners across the sagebrush sea in the West.

The creators of this guide encourage its use in conjunction with local knowledge and resources where available, along with other available regional resources on birds and habitat management in sagebrush communities.

Download the Sagebrush Bird Habitat Guide here.

Read our latest Science to Solutions on sagebrush songbirds.


Building Bridges | Ranchers Are Stewards of the Land

In recent years, a new appreciation is taking hold in the West about the role and benefits of sustainable ranching. The article below captures the essence of why we believe that sage grouse conservation is best achieved through working cooperatively on private lands, and partnering closely with the people who manage them. The following piece was written by Andy Rieber, and published in the American Cowboy magazine.

Some fashions are better off dead. Few, I imagine, would wish back the days of stifling whalebone corsets or immobilizing floor-length skirts. The same principle of progress should hold true not only of what we wear, but also of what we think. Simply put, when ideas persist beyond function or sense, they too should be cast off. Case in point: the threadbare contention that ranching and conservation are incompatible.

For years, it was fashionable among environmental activists to revile cattle grazing as the root cause of all evils (real and perceived) on our Western rangelands. Cattle overgrazed. Cattle destroyed wildlife habitat. Cattle made deserts out of grasslands. Cattle were causing the atmosphere to warm and the seas to rise. There was no logical way—so the narrative went—for a conscientious person to support ranching and the culture of the American cowboy while at the same time being a friend of the earth.

But how times do change. Recently, a new awareness has emerged among conservationists, scientists, and land managers that the benefits of grazing—not to mention the custodianship ranchers bring to the great open spaces—are invaluable for conserving healthy landscapes. At the center of the ranching-conservation movement is the West-wide effort to protect the Greater Sage Grouse, which is being considered this September for a listing under the Endangered Species Act. Throughout the 11 Western states where this low-flying bird is found, ranchers are lining up to participate in efforts to protect the Greater Sage Grouse, whether through conservation easements, cooperative management agreements, landscape maintenance, or grazing modification. In partnership with the USDA’s Sage Grouse Initiative, 1,129 Western ranchers have, to date, conserved 4.4 million acres of Greater Sage Grouse habitat.

What many ranchers have known for generations—that well-managed grazing is a benefit to rangelands—is finally getting recognition, not least of all from  the Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewel, who has personally visited ranches across the West to see firsthand how ranchers are leading the Sage Grouse conservation charge. But the ranching-conservation story goes well beyond the race to save a single species. With no fanfare and little thought of recognition, ranchers today are quietly restoring watersheds, improving wildlife habitat, fighting range fires, and preserving some of the last great open spaces on the American landscape from developers’ hungry Caterpillar earth movers, oftentimes in partnership with groups—like the Nature Conservancy or the Audubon Society—whose view of ranching has measurably evolved.

The perceived divide between ranching and conservation is closing. For those of us who relish the beauty, raw intensity, and historical relevance of cowboy culture, this new appreciation of ranching should be immensely gratifying. Why? Because ranching is the taproot of American cowboy culture—working ranchers and cowboys, both men and women, of yesterday and today, are the creative source and inspiration for the music, art, craftwork, and film depicted in American Cowboy. But America’s ranchers are not simply the bearers of a culture worth celebrating. They as an industry, and as a community of people, are custodians of the sweeping natural open spaces that are the very essence of the American experience. Their dedication to conserving these landscapes warrants more than appreciation. It calls for our unequivocal support.

Andy Rieber is a freelance writer living in remote Adel, Oregon. Her writing has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Wired, the Western Livestock Journal, Working Ranch, Jefferson Monthly, and the Oregon Beef Producer. Visit her website at

Read the original article here.

New England Cottontail | Another Success Story for Proactive Voluntary Conservation

Landowners on the East Coast brought about a major success today with their voluntary conservation efforts for the New England cottontail. Partners announced that foresters and farmers have helped prevent the need to list the New England cottontail under the Endangered Species Act.

This partnership is three-quarters of the way to their goal of 13,500 cottontails in healthy, young forest landscapes. To date, 4,400 acres have been restored on private lands through the voluntary removal of trees and invasive species, planting of native shrubs and brush pile creation. The New England cottontail is one of seven species under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) umbrella initiative called Working Lands for Wildlife (WLFW). The 11 state Greater sage-grouse is another WLFW species for which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) will make a listing decision before September 30th of this year.

“The decision not to list the New England cottontails shows that wildlife and working lands cannot just coexist, but thrive, in harmony,” said Jason Weller, NRCS Chief. “USDA is proud of the private landowners who stepped forward to make proactive conservation improvements on their land, restoring critical habitat for this unique rabbit.”

Today’s announcement re-emphasizes the role of voluntary and proactive conservation for enacting positive change to benefit working lands and wildlife. This announcement follows a similar decision last April when voluntary measures precluded the need for the Service to list the genetically distinct population of sage grouse in the Bi-state region. The nation’s landowners – farmers, ranchers and forest managers – provide not only food and fiber for the world but also include a variety of environmental benefits, including habitat for wildlife. These people are our crucial partners in conservation.

The Service’s official “not warranted” for listing finding on the cottontail will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

Click here to read the Department of Interior’s news release.

Click here to read the blog post by Chief Weller.

The Sage Grouse Initiative and our partners are dedicated to working with private landowners in the West to continue to put in place on-the-ground projects that benefit a variety of species, as well as our communities and economy.

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