The U.S. Department of the Interior released a new science plan that will serve as an action-oriented blueprint for acquiring information needed to make science-based decisions to restore and conserve the imperiled ‘sagebrush sea,’ a roughly 500,000-square-mile-area of sagebrush steppe habitat across western North America.
The science plan identifies 37 priority science needs that address knowledge gaps in five topic areas: fire, invasive plants, restoration, sagebrush and greater sage-grouse, and climate and weather. Led jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Forest Service, the plan is a critical step forward in the implementation of Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s 2015 Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy. The goal of that Strategy is to reduce the size, severity and cost of rangeland fires; address the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species that exacerbate the threat of fire; position fire-management resources for more effective rangeland fire response and effectively restore healthy rangeland landscapes.
“We know that addressing the threat of rangeland fire is critical to conserving sagebrush habitat and the many species, including the greater sage-grouse, that depend on it for survival. The science plan unveiled today helps us do just that,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “With so much at stake, both ecologically and economically, we are committed to the plan’s successful implementation and continued collaboration with states, scientists, resource managers, western communities, ranchers and farmers.”
Across the West, the accelerated invasion of non-native grasses, coupled with the effects of intensified drought and climate change, are creating conditions that lead to large, intense rangeland fires. These fires can easily burn thousands of acres in an hour, destroying livelihoods and crucial sagebrush habitat that is home to the greater sage-grouse and more than 350 other species of wildlife.
Secretary Jewell and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack have worked closely with western states, federal agencies, ranchers, community leaders and other partners to improve management of sagebrush landscapes, with a particular focus on rangeland fire-fighting capacity and the encouragement of proactive partnerships with ranchers, farmers, rural communities and other landowners.
“It is imperative that our producers have the best science available to inform their decisions, and that our federal plans are also based upon well-vetted research,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Balancing conservation with agricultural demands is no easy task. The decisions Western farmers and ranchers and other private landowners make every day about what to do on their land have a critical impact on sage-grouse. Thanks to the commitment of more than 1,300 ranchers, we have already conserved over 5 million acres of land as a part of this effort and USDA has invested more than $400 million to reach $760 million with our partners through 2018. By ensuring we are collecting the best science, we can be sure that our dollars are being put to their best use for this effort.”
“The USGS is proud to be part of the collaborative process toward improving the management of sagebrush landscapes,” said Suzette Kimball, Director of the USGS. “Research and management partnerships are critical to ensure science is addressed in a manner that is both relevant to management and scientifically credible.”
For example, this science plan identifies research activities to continue improvement of native plant restoration and landscape rehabilitation after fires, including new and improved seeding methods. Greater sage-grouse and other wildlife depend on native plant communities for food and habitat.
The interagency team incorporated research planning already completed over the past five years, and invited broad community participation toward identifying science priorities. For each of the 37 science needs that were identified, sub categories of those needs have been further outlined, including a presentation of recently completed science, related science, science that is lacking but needed for more effective management and then recommendations for next steps.
The planning team includes experts from the Department of the Interior, the Department of Agriculture, the Great Basin and the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, the Joint Fire Science Program, and the Western Association of Fish Wildlife Agencies. The USGS, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service participated from the Department of the Interior. The Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Agriculture Research Service participated from the Department of Agriculture.
The Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy Actionable Science Plan can be viewed here.
Greater sage-grouse inhabit parts of 11 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces in western North America. Implementation of effective management actions for the benefit of sage-grouse continues to be a focus of Interior agencies following the 2015 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the species is not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act.