New Framework Helps Plan Next Generation Of Sagebrush Restoration

wide open sagebrush with mesic habitatAugust 2, 2017

Sage grouse require wide-open, conifer-free sagebrush country as well as access to wet habitats. Photo: Brianna Randall

Innovative new research on conifer removal spans the life cycle of sage grouse, showing managers how to increase the efficiency of future projects

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When conifers expand into wide-open sagebrush country, sage grouse flee. This simple equation has been proven time and again by scientific research, which has prompted unprecedented collaboration to remove encroaching juniper and pinyon-pine on over a million acres of public and private lands across the West.

An innovative new study released this month in Ecosphere shows landowners and managers how to increase the efficiency of future conifer removal projects. This study provides a framework to help practitioners across the range plan local, on-the-ground sagebrush restoration projects within a landscape context.

Since sage grouse require large expanses of unfragmented habitat to survive and thrive, it’s critical to look at the big picture of how the birds use sagebrush range in order to have the highest “biological return on investment” for restoration projects.

Sage grouse conservation measures benefit "umbrella" benefits for other sagebrush-dependent species, scientists say. (Scott Copeland photo)

Sage grouse conservation measures–such as removing conifers–provide “umbrella” benefits for other sagebrush-dependent species, scientists say. Photo: Scott Copeland

Jason Reinhardt led a two-year research project in partnership with members of the SGI science team that investigated where to prioritize removing conifers to benefit greater sage-grouse during each stage of their life. The results help practitioners reduce the cost and time spent planning and implementing large-scale management efforts—a win-win for people and wildlife.

This is the first-ever research on conifer removal that spans the life cycle of sage grouse. It’s also the first study that evaluates the best places to cut trees in order to improve connectivity for migrating birds.

“The research spans more than the landscape,” says Reinhardt. “We looked at both nesting and brood-rearing habitat as well as migration pathways used by the birds.”

Reinhardt, a post-doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, used a systematic conservation planning approach to prioritize conifer removal within sage grouse range in Oregon. This particular model is typically used to design marine fish reserves, but Reinhardt and his team put the tool to work in sagebrush country.

“This isn’t about evaluating how people have done conifer removal in the past, but rather a framework for planning next generation cuts,” explains Dave Naugle, SGI Science Advisor and a co-author on the study.

Study area with the state of Oregon highlighted in dark gray. Sage grouse priority areas for conservation (PACs) highlighted with black crosshatched polygons. Inset: sage grouse management zones (hatched polygons) over the western U.S.

Study area within the state of Oregon highlighted in dark gray. Sage grouse priority areas for conservation (PACs) are highlighted as black crosshatched polygons. Inset: sage grouse management zones across the West are shown as hatched polygons.

The research was funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Sage Grouse Initiative, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Pheasants Forever, and Intermountain West Joint Venture.

The scientists used models to identify where conifer removal would meet three different goals:

(1) Enhance existing sage-grouse breeding, nesting, and early brood-rearing habitats.

(2) Facilitate bird movement between breeding habitat (usually sagebrush uplands) and late season brood-rearing habitats (usually in wet mesic areas).

(3) Improve landscape-level connectivity among sage-grouse Priority Areas for Conservation (PACs) to help birds move between them and allow for gene flow.

The results from these models can help managers determine whether a planned restoration action is most likely to benefit brood-rearing habitat, for example, or whether it will enhance connectivity for seasonal movements.

“The priorities for how and where you cut conifer may shift a bit, depending on what part of the bird’s life cycle you’re looking at,” says Reinhardt.

Results from the model related to goal number one, enhancing existing sage grouse habitat, show that conifer removal should be prioritized in areas with:

  • low conifer canopy cover
  • high resilience and resistance to wildfire and annual grass invasion
  • high sage grouse abundance
Private lands like this ranch in Wyoming house the vast majority of mesic resources, which sage grouse chicks rely on for food in the late summer and early fall. Photo: Brianna Randall

Private lands like this ranch in Wyoming house the vast majority of mesic resources, which supply sage grouse chicks with food during the late summer and early fall. New research shows that strategically removing conifers close to wet habitats improves habitat for the birds. Photo: Brianna Randall

The model results for goal number two showed similar results to facilitate seasonal movements, but also identified prioritizing (1) areas close to mesic resources, and (2) prioritizing pathways for hens and broods to access these wet habitats during the late summer and early fall.

Mesic areas provide the high-protein diet of insects and forbs that sage grouse chicks need to survive.

“Private land is the priority for seasonal movements, especially, since the vast majority of mesic resources are on private land,” says Reinhardt.

The research shows that both BLM and private lands are by far the most important areas to remove encroaching conifers to benefit the birds.

The study also “zoomed in” to one area of Oregon to compare the big-picture model results with on-the-ground management activities. Partners have been removing conifers in the Warner Mountains of south-central Oregon for nearly a decade. This analysis showed that resource managers chose the highest priority areas first, generating the highest return on investment.

By incorporating new datasets and tools—such as this new framework or the resource layers on the SGI Interactive Web App—local landowners and resource managers can supplement on-the-ground knowledge with big-picture landscape trends to maximize benefits to sage grouse and the 350 other species that depend on a healthy, intact sagebrush ecosystem.

Read more about conifer removal in sagebrush country

Sage grouse avoid areas where trees grow. This treated site shows how the range can be reclaimed by removing expanding conifer. Photo: 2008 vs 2015. Photo: Todd Forbes, BLM

Sage grouse avoid areas where trees grow. This treated site shows how the range can be reclaimed by removing expanding conifer. Photo: 2008 vs 2015. Photo: Todd Forbes, BLM

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.