Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

August 21, 2023

Conservation practitioners and restoration managers are often faced with the difficult decision of which species and ecosystems to prioritize during conservation. To aid managers in decision making, FORT researchers developed a novel framework that determines where restoration would be most effective in achieving multi-species benefits across ecosystems.

Conifer expansion threatens sagebrush ecosystems

Degradation of sagebrush ecosystems and the corresponding declines in sagebrush-associated species are of major concern to resource managers in the American West. In regions with neighboring sagebrush and pinyon-juniper ecosystems, scientists have documented a recent expansion of conifers downslope into sagebrush ecosystems, reducing habitat for sagebrush-obligate species like the Brewer’s sparrow and greater sage-grouse. To increase habitat for sagebrush-associated wildlife, managers have increasingly implemented mechanical removal of conifers from sagebrush ecosystems.


Photo of two people in a field of trees and brush that has been chopped
Large-scale efforts are underway in Utah and other states in the West to cut down pinyon and juniper trees to restore sagebrush ecosystems. Resulting vegetation changes can have mixed effects for wildlife species. Photo by Utah DNR.

Mechanical removal of conifers threatens already imperiled species

Although conifer removal from sagebrush ecosystems is beneficial to sagebrush-obligate species, recent studies have demonstrated that it likely negatively affects species like the pinyon jay which frequently occur at high densities within early successional pinyon-juniper woodlands. Pinyon jay populations have declined for decades, to the point that they are currently under status review for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Accordingly, restoration managers can benefit from science capable of aiding them in deciding when and where to prioritize single species, or whether certain restoration actions, like conifer removal, are appropriate for meeting multiple objectives when species have such competing needs.


photo of a blue pinyon jay (bird) on top of a stick
Pinyon jay populations are in rapid decline, a problem that could be exacerbated by widespread conifer removal efforts throughout sagebrush ecosystems.  The framework developed in this study aims to reduce negative impacts of conifer removal on birds like the pinyon jay.  Photo from the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 

Developing a framework that prioritizes multiple species and ecosystems

In this study, USGS researchers and collaborators aimed to tackle the multi-species restoration challenge facing resource managers. To do this, they modeled species-specific songbird responses to conifer removal under restoration scenarios prioritized for single species, prioritized for species within single ecosystems, or which balanced the needs of multiple species across ecosystems. They found that management for a single sagebrush-obligate species was the most efficient at providing benefits for that species but resulted in negative effects or opportunity costs for all other songbird species considered, including other sagebrush-associated species. In contrast, managing for all sagebrush-associated species, while considering impacts on pinyon jays, was beneficial to all of the sagebrush species, and had fewer negative effects on pinyon jays and other pinyon-juniper associated species compared to management prioritized for Brewer's sparrow alone.


Management Implications

This study found it is possible to restore sagebrush ecosystems while reducing negative effects on pinyon-juniper woodland associated species by considering outcomes for multiple species. In all, this framework can be used to balance undesired consequences of management on non-target species and is adaptable for other systems and taxa. 


Get Our News

These items are in the RSS feed format (Really Simple Syndication) based on categories such as topics, locations, and more. You can install and RSS reader browser extension, software, or use a third-party service to receive immediate news updates depending on the feed that you have added. If you click the feed links below, they may look strange because they are simply XML code. An RSS reader can easily read this code and push out a notification to you when something new is posted to our site.