The Science Behind WLFW’s Riparian and Wet Meadow Restoration

wide open sagebrush with mesic habitat

August 26, 2021

Better understanding how sage grouse utilize mesic resources, like this wet meadow near Gunnison, Colorado, and how to best restore these areas efficiently and effectively has been a focus of WLFW research for the past several years. Photo: SGI

Why Conserve Wet Habitats?

On the western range, water is life. Riparian, wet meadow, and other mesic areas—places where land meets water—are rare but incredibly important to wildlife and working lands. These areas are reservoirs of late-season productivity that provide reliable water and forage for livestock and wildlife during the dry summer and fall. Unfortunately, past degradation and de-watering have reduced their size and function.

Additionally, some 50-90 percent of riparian areas and wet meadows are privately owned, reflecting the importance that working lands play in providing wet habitats in the West (Donnelly et al. 2018). Through Working Lands for Wildlife’s (WLFW) Sage Grouse Initiative, the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has been leading a broad coalition of partners who are refining and implementing new approaches to riparian and wet meadow restoration

Sagebrush landscape including a green riparian ribbon in Montana. Credit: iStock

Mesic, or wet, areas like the green ribbon in this photo play a critical role in supporting wildlife and livestock in sagebrush country. Credit: iStock

Benefits to Wildlife

In the sagebrush biome, wet habitats comprise less than two percent of the landscape, yet 80 percent of wildlife depend upon them to complete their life cycle. Early WLFW-sponsored science showed the critical role of reliable wet habitats for sage grouse. Researchers found 85 percent of sage grouse lek sites were located within six miles of wet habitats, providing hens and their chicks access to nutrient-rich forbs and insects located in wet habitats during critical brood-rearing stages (Donnelly et al. 2016). Subsequent science further highlighted the importance of healthy and resilient wet habitats during times of drought, demonstrating that landscapes with the most uncertainty in wet habitat abundance and distribution supported the fewest grouse (Donnelly et al. 2019).

A Shared Vision of Resiliency

Protecting and restoring these emerald islands in the sagebrush sea is essential to improving overall rangeland resilience to drought, fire, and flooding. In a study of threewatershed-scale restoration projects across the West, WLFW scientists found low-tech restoration approaches (e.g., Zeedyk structures, beaver dam analogues, and grazing management) increased riparian and wet meadow vegetation productivity by 25 percent and kept plants greener longer throughout the growing season (Silverman et al. 2019). Restoration efforts also exhibited reduced sensitivity to precipitation over time, resulting in greater resiliency to drought and climate variability. Other research also showed how healthy and functioning wet habitats make landscapes more resilient to drought and wildfire (Fesenmeyer et al. 2018, Fairfax and Whittle 2020). These findings exemplify the dual benefits of restoration to ranching and wildlife.

This Science to Solutions report highlights WLFW-sponsored science showing that low-tech restoration keeps rangelands greener longer. Click image to read the full report.


Prioritizing Where to Work

Conserving riparian and wet meadow habitats in an arid environment is beneficial wherever it occurs, but limited resources necessitate a strategic approach to addressing the large scope of degradation. Factors like degree of channel incision, potential valley bottom width, vegetation conditions, wildlife habitat use, and community-based partnerships all determine where work is prioritized. WLFW prioritizes early intervention to maintain and enhance vulnerable wet habitats over intensive restoration of deeply incised streams that lack floodplain connectivity.

From a sage grouse standpoint, targeting conservation actions close to breeding and nesting habitats helps ensure a reliable source of insects and forbs to feed growing chicks as uplands dry out in the summer sun. To help focus restoration projects where they will have the most impact on sage grouse and other wildlife, WLFW scientists mapped wet habitats and their productivity through time across the West and published the data on the SGI web app, which is freely available to landowners and land managers.

The online mapping application on the Sage Grouse Initiative website shows mesic resources across the West, valuable information for landowners and practitioners. Click image to visit the map.

Sharing Knowledge and Empowering Others

WLFW has been putting this science into practice through technology transfer and training led by the NRCS West National Technology Support Center in partnership with Utah State University’s Restoration Consortium, private consultants, and other agencies. Together, these groups have hosted dozens of field workshops and webinars, reaching nearly 2,000 practitioners. WLFW also sponsored the development of a free comprehensive design manual and pocket guide that provides guidance on everything from site selection to implementation.

To further extend their reach, WLFW trainers leveraged virtual platforms to make science more accessible and available on-demand. In August 2020, WLFW and USU’s Restoration Consortium hosted a four-day virtual workshop covering beaver dam analogues and other low-tech stream restoration that is now available for free on-demand learning. A year later, NRCS teamed up with the Intermountain West Joint Venture, Bureau of Land Management, and BIO-Logic, Inc. to host a one-day virtual session on low-tech methods for meadow restoration that can also be streamed for free.

Across the West, NGOs, landowners, and land managers are now implementing these projects on their own, vastly scaling up wet habitat restoration producing benefits for wildlife, livestock, and rangelands.

Anyone can learn to install low-tech restoration stream restoration structures, which is why it's sometimes called "blue collar conservation." Photo: John Coffman

Anyone can learn to install low-tech restoration stream restoration structures, which is why it’s sometimes called “blue collar conservation.” Photo: John Coffman

Measuring Effectiveness

One critical component of WLFW’s conservation efforts is outcome-based monitoring. The Rangeland Analysis Platform (RAP), a powerful rangeland mapping and monitoring technology developed by WLFW scientists in partnership with the University of Montana, highlights how much of an impact these practices have. The RAP’s productivity layers, and especially its 16-day biomass layer, can highlight how riparian vegetation responds to wet habitat restoration. This before-and-after example from Oregon clearly shows how riparian vegetation responded to floodplain restoration.

This figure, developed from the Rangeland Analysis Platform, highlights how riparian vegetation responded to this stream restoration effort on Priday Ranch in Oregon.

Looking to the Future

Wet habitat restoration is a cornerstone of WLFW’s efforts in sagebrush country, as detailed in the Framework for Conservation Action in the Sagebrush Biome, which outlines the next five years of WLFW’s work in sagebrush country. Learn more about WLFW’s approach to riparian and wet meadow restoration in the framework and through the supporting materials on the Framework website.

WLFW-Supported Mesic Restoration Science Publications

2020    Fairfax E., and A. Whittle. Smokey the beaver: Beaver-dammed riparian corridors stay green during wildfire throughout the western USA. Ecological Applications 30:e02225.

2019    Silverman, N.L., B.W. Allred, J.P. Donnelly, T.B. Chapman, J.D. Maestas, J.M. Wheaton, J. White, and D.E. Naugle. Low-tech riparian and wet meadow restoration increases vegetation productivity and resilience across semiarid rangelands. Restoration Ecology 27:269-278.

2019    Donnelly, J.P., D.E. Naugle, D.P. Collins, B.D. Dugger, B.W. Allred, J.D. Tack, and V.J. Dreitz. Synchronizing conservation to seasonal wetland hydrology and waterbird migration in semi-arid landscapes. Ecosphere 10:e02758.

2018    Donnelly, J.P., B.W. Allred, D. Perret, N.L. Silverman, J.D. Tack, V.J. Dreitz, J.D. Maestas, and D.E. Naugle. Seasonal drought in North America’s sagebrush biome structures dynamic mesic resources for sage-grouse. Ecology and Evolution 8:12492-12505.

2018    Fesenmyer, K.A., D.C. Dauwalter, C. Evans, and T. Allai. Livestock management, beaver, and climate influences on riparian vegetation in a semi-arid landscape. PLoS ONE 13:e0208928.

2016    Donnelly J.P., D.E. Naugle, C.A. Hagen, and J.D. Maestas. Public lands and private waters: Scarce mesic resources structure land tenure and sage-grouse distributions. Ecosphere 7:e01208.


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.