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Resilience science - key to effective restoration of imperiled sagebrush ecosystems

Date: October 08, 2015


A wildfire burning through a Wyoming big sagebrush community with the invasive annual grass, cheatgrass, in the understory.  These types of communities have low resilience or recovery potential (photo by Doug Shinneman).
A wildfire burning through a Wyoming big sagebrush community with the invasive annual grass, cheatgrass, in the understory. These types of communities have low resilience or recovery potential (photo by Doug Shinneman).

Background​

Progressive expansion of invasive annual grasses and larger and more severe fires in sagebrush ecosystems underscore the importance of vegetation management treatments that can reverse these trends. In sagebrush ecosystems, vegetation treatments focus on reducing woody species (shrubs and grasses) to reduce fuel loads, and thus fire severity and extent, and on post-fire rehabilitation. Overarching management objectives are restoring and maintaining ecosystem services such as clean air and water by (1) increasing resilience to disturbance or recovery potential, and (2) decreasing the longer term risk of conversion to invasive annual grasses and an annual/grass fire cycle.

Research

Resilience science has been used to develop management guides for selecting appropriate treatment and restoration strategies for sagebrush and piñon-juniper ecosystems. The guides provide a framework with six key components for rapidly evaluating resilience to disturbance, resistance to invasive annual grasses, and plant community succession following wildfires and management treatments. The key components are:

Piñon and juniper (PJ) species expanding into a mountain big sagebrush community.  PJ expansion decreases the understory shrubs and grasses and lowers the resilience of these communities to wildfire and other disturbance (photo by Jeanne Chambers).
Piñon and juniper (PJ) species expanding into a mountain big sagebrush community. PJ expansion decreases the understory shrubs and grasses and lowers the resilience of these communities to wildfire and other disturbance (photo by Jeanne Chambers).

  1. Ecological characteristics of the site;

  2. Vegetation composition and structure prior to treatment;

  3. Severity of the disturbance or treatment;

  4. Post-treatment weather;

  5. Post-treatment management, especially grazing; and

  6. Monitoring and adaptive management.

Several tools are provided to aid in determining the most appropriate treatment. These tools include:

  1. A conceptual model of the relationships between the key components and their effects on resilience and resistance,

  2. Guides to evaluate disturbance and treatment severity, and

  3. Aids for determining plant composition and structure after wildfires.

Importantly, evaluation score sheets are provided for rating resilience to disturbance and resistance to invasive annual grasses, and for evaluating the probability of treatment success. The approach is being widely adapted by managers seeking to increase treatment effectiveness.

Rehabilitation seeding after a wildfire to restore a Wyoming big sagebrush community (photo by Chad Boyd).
Rehabilitation seeding after a wildfire to restore a Wyoming big sagebrush community (photo by Chad Boyd).

Key Findings

This research provides:

  • Information and criteria for evaluating resilience (recovery potential) following wildfire and management treatments in sagebrush ecosystems;

  • Information and criteria for evaluating resistance to invasive annual grasses; and

  • Score sheets for determining the suitability of areas for treatment and the need for post-fire or post-treating rehabilitation seeding.



Principal Investigators: 
External Partners: 
Richard F. Miller, Oregon State University
Mike Pellant, Bureau of Land Management
Joint Fire Science Program
Great Basin Fire Science Exchange