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Weeds & Fire

How Do Invasive Grasses Harm Sagebrush Country?

weeds and fire before after field and stream

We avoid further loss of sagebrush grazing lands to weeds or wildfire by promoting deep-rooted, native plants that protect wildlife habitat and working lands. Photo right: Field and Stream

The spread of invasive annual grasses like cheatgrass is linked to unwanted wildfires. Cheatgrass is highly flammable and dries out earlier than native plants, leading to more frequent, hotter fires. Once sagebrush habitat burns in a megafire, its hard to restore, leaving noxious weeds that degrade rangelands and wildlife habitat.

These invasive grasses replace the sagebrush sea’s diverse, native plants — like sagebrush, wildflowers, and bunchgrasses — with a monoculture of weeds. That’s bad for birds and herds, which rely on nutritious, native perennial plants.

How We Work to Conserve Our Western Roots

* Help landowners develop sustainable, site-specific grazing plans that promote deep-rooted perennial grasses to keep the range resilient and weed-free.

* Use the groundbreaking Ecosystem Resilience & Resistance index (based on soil temperature and moisture regimes) to prioritize investments in reducing cheatgrass.

* Partner with BLM on pre- and post-fire prescriptions on co-mingled public/private property, including strategically placed fuel breaks that reduce the risk of wildfires.

 

* Control invasive annual grasses and re-vegetate sites where invasives have been removed.

The Results: Enhancing Rangeland Health

* Reduced the threat of invasive grasses and associated wildfire risk on 2.5 million acres.

* Produced collaborative resource that explains how fuel breaks can minimize the risk of megafires in the sagebrush ecosystem.

* Created free online tool that maps Ecosystem Resilience & Resistance.

Resources:

>  Read our Science to Solutions study on reducing threats from weeds and fire

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to map ecosystem resistance to cheatgrass

>  Learn more about how to manage for healthy, diverse plants 

Conifer Expansion

What’s The Problem With Conifers?

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, 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, Todd Forbes, BLM

Fires once kept native conifers from expanding into sagebrush-dominated, treeless country. In the last 150 years, junipers and pinyon pines have marched across rangeland, drying up precious streams and threatening sage grouse. As little as 4% tree cover near a sage grouse breeding area causes the birds to abandon the lek.

In the Great Basin, conifers have expanded their range by 600 percent. If no action is taken to reverse the trend, 75% of the conifers will grow into large trees within the next 30-50 years, completely overtaking the native bunchgrasses and sagebrush that 350+ species of wildlife need to survive.

How We Work to Remove Conifers Based on Science

Target areas with younger, low-density trees and an existing understory of grass and sagebrush.

Focus projects in sage grouse strongholds on private lands or on adjacent public lands where ranchers hold grazing leases.

Research the ecosystem impacts of conifer expansion and conifer removal.

The Results: Restoring the Sagebrush Sea

* Removed 555,000 acres of conifer to reclaim core sage grouse habitat.

Decreased fuel loads to reduce the threat of potential wildfires.

* Partnered across fences to remove conifers on public lands.

Increased songbird abundance in cut areas and improved nesting success for sage grouse.

Resources:

>  Read science and research on how and why to remove conifers

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to map tree canopy cover near you

>  Learn more about how ranchers partner to remove conifers 

Residential Development

Why Do Subdivisions Threaten The Sagebrush Sea?

Cutting up the vast sagebrush range means losing prime habitat for wildlife as well as losing valuable working lands. Photos: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Cutting up the vast sagebrush range means losing prime habitat for wildlife as well as losing valuable working lands. Photos: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Chopping up sagebrush country is the number one threat to sage grouse—and to the ranching families who depend upon wide-open rangeland to run livestock. Dispersed homes on small acreages (“ranchettes”) fragment and degrade the range, disrupting the vast, intact habitat the bird needs to survive.

Though the threat of residential development is localized to specific areas of each western state, the resulting habitat loss is nearly irreversible.

How We Use Easements To Benefit Ranchers and Sage Grouse

Limit urban and ex-urban subdivision development in sage grouse core areas by achieving conservation easements that provide a financial boost for ranchers and preserve habitat.

Keep large ranches intact for future generations by using voluntary agreements that benefit working lands and 350+ sagebrush-dependent species.

Use science-based targeting tools to strategically cluster easements where development potential is highest, including at-risk watersheds.

* Partner with local land trusts, and compensate landowners for easements through the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program, the Grasslands Reserve Program, or the Wetlands Reserve Program.

The Results: Conserving Agricultural Lands

Protected 552,000 acres of prime habitat for 350+ sagebrush-dependent species.

Preserved agricultural heritage and wide-open space with 200+ conservation easements.

Funded research to study the impacts of easements on wildlife, like mule deer.

Resources:

>  Read our Science to Solutions on how easements protect wildlife 

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to priority areas for sage grouse

>  Learn more about how ranchers benefit from easements 

 

Grazing Land Cultivation

Why Does Converting Sagebrush To Crops Harm Habitat?

Plowing up native plants for cultivated crops leaves a monoculture or bare soil that destroys the sagebrush sea. Photos: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Plowing up native plants for cultivated crops leaves a monoculture or bare soil that harms the viability of the sagebrush sea. Photos: Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Rangelands with lush native grasses, wildflowers, sagebrush and wet meadows are the best habitat for sage grouse and hundreds of other species. Plus, managing for diverse, healthy plants puts more pounds on livestock, too.

One of the biggest threats to sage grouse in the northeastern portion of their range is converting sagebrush into cultivated crops. Well-managed livestock grazing of native plants is one of the best ways to benefit wildlife and working lands.

How We Maintain Grazing Lands For People And Wildlife

Target conservation easements using science-based models to preserve native range where the risk of cropland cultivation is the highest.

Customize grazing plans that will improve nesting, rearing, and wintering habitat for sage grouse while improving agricultural operations.

Offer financial assistance through the NRCS’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program — for grazing improvement practices.

The Results: A Healthier Range

* Improved grazing systems to enhance range habitat on 3.6 million acres for sage grouse and other wildlife species.

Developed a cropland cultivation risk model to ensure conservation dollars are spent in the right places.

 

Resources:

>  Read our Science to Solutions on how grazing can conserve sage grouse 

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to map crop conversion risk 

>  Learn more about ranchers participating in sustainable grazing plans

 

Wet Meadow Loss

Why Do Sage Grouse Need Wet Areas?

With strategic restoration and conservation strategies, we can enhance precious water resources, like this wet meadow in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado. Photos: Claudia Strijek

With strategic restoration and conservation strategies, we can enhance precious water resources, like this wet meadow in the Gunnison Basin of Colorado. Photos: Claudia Strijek

As upland nesting habitat dries out in late summer, sage grouse follow the “green line” in search of productive wet habitats that provide food and cover for maturing young. SGI-funded research shows that 85 percent of leks are within six miles of mesic resources. The largest leks are within two miles of wet habitats.

Wet habitats comprise less than 2 percent of the landscape, and the majority of these vital resources are in private ownership, so ranchers are central to their conservation. Enhancing and protecting mesic areas — the West’s “Emerald Isles” — builds drought resilience, boosts forage productivity, and benefits wildlife.

How We Enhance Vital Wet Areas

* Compensate ranchers for protecting valuable mesic habitats through conservation easements.

Pair land acquisitions with habitat enhancement practices that benefit wildlife.

Help ranchers pay for livestock water developments, like pipelines and storage tanks, that transport water to uplands to relieve grazing pressure around delicate wet habitats.

water-icon

The Results: Protecting Scarce Resources

Released the Mesic Habitat Conservation Planning Guide and accompanying landowner brochure detailing science-based practices to conserve wet places.

* Conserved 12,000 acres of prime wet habitat in the Bi-State region along the Nevada-California border.

Improved 179 acres of mesic habitat throughout the 11-state sage grouse range.

Resources:

>  Read our Science to Solutions on conserving wet areas

>  See a multimedia story about mesic habitat

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to map mesic resources

>  Learn more about ranchers enhancing water resources

Fence Collisions

Why Are Fences a Threat to Sage Grouse?

Simple and cheap fence markers have been proven to reduce sage grouse collisions by 83 percent, saving birds and improving habitat. Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Simple and cheap fence markers have been proven to reduce sage grouse collisions by 83 percent, saving birds and improving habitat. Jeremy Roberts, Conservation Media

Sage grouse tend to fly close to the ground, just skimming the tops of the sagebrush. Unfortunately, that means these birds can get tangled in livestock fences, resulting in injuries or fatalities.

The risk of striking fence wires is greatest when sage grouse are flying toward mating leks in the dim, pre-dawn light in the spring.

How We Make High-Risk Fences Visible

Partner with landowners to move or mark high-risk fences. Markers are usually 3″ vinyl strips snapped onto the top fence wire at 3-foot intervals.

* Target the fences that pose the biggest collision risk (found in just 6 to 14 percent of the total sage grouse range) using this GIS model of strike-risk.

Incorporate fence-marking into ranch conservation plans that typically include a variety of land management or grazing practices.


The Results: Safer Skies for Sage Grouse

* Marked or moved 741 miles of fences with the help of partners.

Reduced sage grouse collisions by 83 percent.

* Created a new online planning tool that allows public and private land managers to find high-risk fences at the local level.

 

Resources:

>  Read our Science to Solutions on how marking fences saves grouse

>  Use SGI’s Interactive Web App to find high-risk fences near you 

>  Learn more about ranchers who marked fences