Handbook for sagebrush steppe restoration techniques can help sustain wildlife and western ecosystems

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The sagebrush ecosystem in the western U.S is one of the largest ecosystems in North America, but it is also threatened from wildfire and invasive plants. “Restoration of these unique ecosystems will help sustain wildlife and livelihoods throughout the West," said David Pyke, the USGS ecologist and lead author of the final installment of a three-part sagebrush restoration handbook. 

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Today, the U.S. Geological Survey published the final installment of a three-part handbook addressing restoration of sagebrush ecosystems from the landscape to the site level.

“The sagebrush ecosystem in the western U.S is one of the largest ecosystems in North America, but it is also threatened from wildfire and invasive plants,” said David Pyke, USGS ecologist and lead author of the new USGS Circular.  “Restoration of these unique ecosystems will help sustain wildlife and livelihoods throughout the West. This series of handbooks can assist land managers, often constrained by limited resources, in applying restoration to locations where they may provide the greatest good.”

A close-up photo of sagebrush, a vital part of the western sagebrush ecosystems
A close-up os sage-brush. Sagebrush-steppe landscapes have changed in fundamental ways over the past 100 years. In general, the area of land dominated by sagebrush has decreased, plant community composition at low-elevation sites has become dominated by non-native annual grasses, trees have expanded downslope from high-elevation sites to dominate lower slopes and valleys, and large patches of non-native annual grasses have fragmented habitats. (Credit: Justin Welty)

The three-part handbook describes a sagebrush-steppe habitat restoration framework that incorporates landscape ecology principles and information on resistance of sagebrush-steppe to invasive plants and resilience to disturbance. Part one of the handbook introduced basic concepts about sagebrush ecosystems, landscape ecology and restoration ecology. Part two helps guide selection of potential sites for restoration from a landscape perspective. 

Part three introduces a site-specific restoration decision tool to assist managers in selecting sites and the best techniques to use at those sites to improve the potential for restoration success. The site-level restoration decision tool is structured in nine steps that may be most useful when addressed sequentially:

  1. Define site-level restoration objectives
  2. Describe the ecological site characteristics of the restoration site, such as soil chemistry and texture, soil moisture and temperature regimes, and the vegetation communities the site can support
  3. Compare the current vegetation to the plant communities associated with the site characteristics
  4. Determine current land uses and past disturbances that may influence restoration success
  5. Consider how weather before and after treatments may impact restoration success
  6. Consider restoration treatment types, both passive and active, and their potential positive and negative impacts on the ecosystem and on habitats
  7. Consider post-restoration livestock grazing activities and management
  8. Monitor to document implementation and determine success
  9. Apply information learned from monitoring to determine how restoration actions in the future might be adapted to improve restoration success
A male sage-grouse struts his stuff on his native sage steppe.
A male sage-grouse struts his stuff on his native sage steppe.(Credit: Doug Ouren, USGS. Public domain.)

“The need for restoration of sagebrush habitat far exceeds the means to restore all degraded habitats,” said Pyke. “Strategic decisions based on sound ecosystem knowledge and landscape principles may allow restoration to keep pace or exceed degradation in key locations to maintain wildlife populations and provide critical ecosystem services such as clean water and livestock forage.”

Although the greater sage-grouse and sagebrush-steppe habitat are the focus of the handbook, they are only examples of a process that can be modified and used for other landscape-related restoration issues.

The handbook was funded by the Joint Fire Science Program and National Interagency Fire Center, Bureau of Land Management, Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative, USGS and Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, with authors from the USGS, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon State University, University of Wyoming, Brigham Young University and Utah State University.

Greater sage-grouse occur in parts of 11 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces in western North America.  Implementation of effective management actions for the benefit of sage-grouse continues to be a focus of Department of the Interior agencies following the decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the species is not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act.