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Improving the Success of Post-Fire Adaptive Management Strategies in Sagebrush Steppe

Ecological Drought Risk and Post-Fire Adaptive Management in Sagebrush Steppe
Principal Investigator
Matthew Germino


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Sagebrush steppe is one of the most widely distributed ecosystems in North America. Found in eleven western states, this important yet fragile ecosystem is dominated by sagebrush, but also contains a diversity of native shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants. It provides critical habitat for wildlife like pronghorn and threatened species such as the greater sage-grouse, and is grazed by livestock on public and private lands. However, this landscape is increasingly threatened by shifts in wildfire patterns, the spread of invasive grasses, and changing climate conditions. While sagebrush is slow to recover after fires, non-native grasses such as cheatgrass thrive in post-fire conditions and the spread of these species can increase the [...]

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“Burning Sagebrush - Credit: USGS”
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Sagebrush steppe is one of the most widely distributed ecosystems in North America, but is increasingly imperiled from shifting fire behavior due to exotic grass invasion and climate shifts. While sagebrush is slow to return after fire, exotic grasses are well adapted and can spread quickly, converting vast swaths of sagebrush steppe to exotic monocultures with critical impacts to ecosystem services, grazing lands, and game and threatened species such as the greater sage grouse. To address this growing concern, resource managers use post-fire treatments such as herbicide applications, to reduce exotic grass invasion, and seeding and plantings to reestablish native vegetation. However, these efforts have had mixed results and poor success is often attributed to difficult to predict drought events that can inhibit the establishment and survival of seeding or planting material; a limited amount of time to make rehabilitation treatments (i.e. typically required in the first year post-fire); or by using seed or planting material that is not adapted to the treatment area. In this study we will use data collected from >300 fires over the past ~40 years that were treated with sagebrush seed, the drought forecasts available, and physiological drought responses on sagebrush populations collected from sagebrush “common gardens.” Our analyses will quantify the impact of drought in these treatments through a retrospective analysis, how using drought forecasts or extending treatments over multiple years could have altered treatment outcomes, and how to select more appropriate and adaptable plant material for rehabilitation projects. The proposed work has the potential to impact how land is managed in the western United States and will inform current needs that must be met to keep these lands ecologically and economically viable in the future. This project was jointly funded by the Southwest, Northwest, and North Central CASCs.

Project Extension

typeTechnical Summary
valueUsing existing field and remotely sensed data from many historic post-fire seedings of sagebrush around the western US, we will determine how ecological drought before and after fires has affected seeding outcomes across a range of climate, topographic, and soil conditions, with a focus on episodic (extreme) drought as modeling variable. The project will begin with a meeting involving the co-PI team, a climate-information advisory group, and our manager team to discuss and refine ways to quantify ecological drought, how to address it in post-fire restoration, the proposed project deliverables, and to collectively prepare a forum paper on scientific and management perspectives on the challenges and opportunities regarding ecological drought in post-fire restoration. A keystone deliverable will be development of a drought module for our USGS Land Treatment Planning Tool. The module will have ecological drought indices (EDI) based on our empirical models for the user-selected area: 1) generalized/static EDI describing tendency of a site to have drought based on long-term climate records and 2) EDI status as of the current water year, in addition to 3) forecasted ecological drought into the subsequent water year based on linkages to other types of forecasted drought indexes. The tool will enable managers interested in post-fire seeding to ask 1) aside from the mean annual temperature and precipitation of “my” site of concern, how prone is it to drought? 2) what has been the ecological drought condition of the water year prior to the fire? 3) looking forward, what is the forecasted ecological drought condition for the current water year?, and, 4) how do these projections relate to generalized drought indices (eg, Palmer’s) that are not based on the spatial and temporal details of sagebrush’s growth resource requirements like our EDI will be?

Budget Extension

typeFY 18 Award Type

Additional Information


Type Scheme Key
RegistrationUUID NCCWSC 30ee9d2a-5e32-44c3-8f9b-b924e68fe3bd
StampID NCCWSC NC18-GM1343

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