Fire Conference Opens With Release of Strategy for Protecting Sage Grouse from Wildfire & Cheatgrass
November 5, 2014
Today, a major science conference (The Next Steppe, Sage Grouse and Rangeland Wildfire in the Great Basin) opens in Boise, Idaho, bringing together top officials, scientists, and managers to address a huge threat to sage grouse: wildfire. U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Mike Connor and other senior department officials will participate in the three-day conference November 5-7, to discuss rangeland wildfire threats to sagebrush habitat throughout the Great Basin. Join the conversation and watch online.
The conference coincides with the Sage Grouse Initiative release of a powerful new strategy to reduce the threat of wildfire to sage grouse. Lead author of the featured science, Jeanne Chambers (U.S. Forest Service), is interviewed in the article below that appeared Nov. 4th in the evening edition of E&E News.
(Photo: Wildfire in the sagebrush-steppe, by D. Shinneman)
Phil Taylor, E&E reporter
Published: Tuesday, November 4, 2014
Scientists are rolling out a new strategy this week to fight wildfire and cheatgrass threatening the greater sage grouse.
The goal is to help the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service place firefighting assets, target vegetation treatments and launch rehabilitation projects for burned landscapes in the Great Basin.
“This is the first time we’ve developed a landscape-scale prioritization for addressing wildfire and invasive threats,” said Jeanne Chambers, a research ecologist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, who was the lead author of a report detailing the strategy. “We’re really excited about the work being applied.”
The strategy is seen as key to BLM’s and the Forest Service’s efforts to implement safeguards for sage grouse ahead of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s court-mandated September 2015 deadline to decide whether it should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The agencies are amending land-management plans across the West, but they have finite resources for preventing wildfires and performing treatments that benefit sage grouse.
Chambers and her colleagues are set to present the report at a conference in Boise, Idaho, to facilitate discussion between scientists and land-management officials on how to address wildfire and invasive species in sage grouse habitat.
Notable attendees at the three-day event include Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, Bureau of Land Management Director Neil Kornze, Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe, and Interior Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider.
The Chambers report is among the first to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers and managers from the Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and Agricultural Research Service, Bureau of Land Management, and state wildlife agencies.
While greater sage grouse face a panoply of threats across their 11-state Western range — including oil and gas development, transmission lines, roads, and even ravens — their primary threat in the Great Basin states of Nevada, Utah, Oregon and Idaho is wildfire and invasive cheatgrass, Chambers said.
Prior to European settlement of the Great Basin in the 1800s, wildfires burned sagebrush-dominated ecosystem once every century to once every few decades, according to the report.
But today, wildfires strike as frequently as once every 18 years and are generally larger, Chambers said. The wildfires offer a toehold for the invasion of cheatgrass, which dries out more quickly than other grasses and perpetuates the risk of more frequent and larger fires.
Since cheatgrass was introduced by Europeans in the late 1800s, it has dominated nearly 10 million acres in Nevada and Utah alone, according to the report. At the same time, the area of Great Basin lands covered by pinyon and juniper woodlands — another threat to sage grouse — has increased up to sixfold.
With wildfire and cheatgrass posing a one-two punch for the grouse, the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies convened an interagency team of plant ecologists, wildlife biologists, fire specialists and land managers to look for solutions.
‘Powerful decision tool’
The strategy being unveiled this week mapped lands that are most resilient to disturbances like fire and drought and most resistant to stressors like invasive species. Researchers found that resilience and resistance are closely tied to the land’s capacity to grow native shrubs, perennial grasses and forbs — a key food source for sage grouse.
They also found that cooler and moister soils produce more grasses and forbs, forcing cheatgrass to grow more slowly and produce fewer seeds.
Researchers used existing data to map the land’s resistance and resilience to wildfire and invasive species. They layered the results onto maps showing the density of sagebrush cover, which is a key indicator of sage grouse. The strategy also considers factors such as the density of breeding birds in a given area.
“The result gives managers a powerful decision tool to identify priority areas, plan treatments and target investments,” said a synopsis of the report prepared by the NRCS’s Sage Grouse Initiative.
For example, areas that show low resilience and resistance that also have few native grasses and forbs and high risk of invasive cheatgrass would likely take a longer time to recover from a disturbance and may require more proactive and intensive management, the report said.
“Management actions will be more beneficial in some areas than others,” Chambers said.
Sagebrush-dominated ecosystems with relatively low resilience and resistance may be top candidates for reseeding after a wildfire, the report notes. Prescribed fire may be a viable treatment on sites that have experienced pinyon and juniper encroachment, but which have relatively cool and moist soils that are believed to be more resilient to disturbance and resistant to invasives.
The new strategy will help BLM implement an instruction memorandum signed in July that ordered fire personnel to focus hazardous fuels reduction projects and pre-position firefighting resources in habitats of highest importance to sage grouse.
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.