This season's edition of the Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest Newsletter contains recent program highlights including research updates, new projects, field updates and more.
Socially-distanced day on the land
RestoreNet sites are demonstration sites that illustrate how restoration techniques perform to improve degraded lands. Read more below.
Federal Workers: Make your projects count!
Submit your plant-related projects to a National Seed Strategy Report.
Invasive grasses cause lasting damage to desert flora.
RAMPS is working on collaborative solutions to mapping invasive species and developing best practices for treatments that remove them.
The Southwest Biological Science Center (SBSC) Restoration Assessment and Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS) has been working hard the past few months. Yes, we have been working from home, but this hasn’t slowed us down. We’ve managed to publish a few papers, publish a report on the cutting-edge science of ecological forecasting, and make progress on a number of ongoing research efforts. We are happy to announce that we’ve received funding for a few new projects, including a collaboration with the energy sector and a project that will collect and share lessons learned from climate adaptation strategies.
New to our newsletter are research updates from collaborators at SBSC and other research institutions that are relevant to our network. If you are a researcher, please send your recent publications to be considered for our newsletter and reach over 400 people across the Southwest.
Stay safe, healthy and enjoy our update!
Molly McCormick, RAMPS Coordinator
NATIONAL SEED STRATEGY FEDERAL REPORT 2015-2020
Created in 2015, The National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration (National Seed Strategy) fosters interagency collaboration with goals to guide development, availability, and use of seed needed for timely and effective restoration.
Do your projects, research, or collaborative efforts meet goals in the National Seed Strategy? If so, all federal employees are being asked to submit their work to be included in a comprehensive report. If you are a non-federal employee who works on restoration, plant development, and plant-related research, you can forward this request to your federal colleagues so they can report on your collaborative efforts.
The National Seed Strategy 2015-2020 Report will synthesize accomplishments and highlight areas where more work is needed. You will be able to use the report to leverage, celebrate, and increase your efforts.
For more information and to report your projects, please visit the National Seed Strategy reporting portal.
Please contact Molly McCormick, reporting committee chair (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions.
>>>> RESEARCH UPDATES <<<<
WEIGHING COSTS RELATIVE TO OUTCOMES: WOODY AND INVASIVE PLANT REMOVAL FOLLOWED BY SEEDING IN SAGEBRUSH SHRUBLANDS AND PINYON-JUNIPER WOODLANDS
New study by SBSC RAMPS researchers examines how the costs of vegetation treatments relate to outcomes.
The increase of undesirable woody and invasive plants on public and private lands elevates wildfire risk, alters habitat, and can lead to erosion. Expensive vegetation treatments are widely implemented each year and include removal of undesirable species and subsequent seeding. Despite these investments to improve ecosystem health, treatments are rarely evaluated to determine whether more spending improves intended outcomes. This RAMPS study assessed commonly employed vegetation treatments and costs relative to their outcomes across sagebrush shrublands and pinyon-juniper woodlands in the western USA. Results provide land managers and restoration practitioners information on how money spent on various treatment combinations relates to desired outcomes and highlights the areas where more spending can yield better results. Given the growing need and costs of land management actions, the study raises the importance of specifying treatment budgets and objectives and coupling this with effectiveness monitoring, to improve future efforts.
Read the research brief with results you can use.
RESTORENET REPORT CARD: WHAT WE'RE LEARNING FROM THE SOUTHWEST'S FIRST NETWORKED RESTORATION EXPERIMENT
The RestoreNet project just published its first paper looking at restoration treatments that improve land condition in arid lands. Using 7 experimental sites in the rangelands of Northern Arizona, USGS researchers provided scientific support to understand if commonly used restoration treatments to increase water availability improve seeding success. The study showed that digging small impressions or pits in the land prior to seeding had the biggest effect at increasing the germination of native seeds while limiting non-native species establishment. In addition, the project showed how in a cooler and wetter than average year, seed mixes more adapted to cool conditions outperform those adapted to hotter conditions. These are important findings as land managers are currently exploring ways to improve habitat and forage across rangelands that are experiencing ongoing drought in the Southwest. The RestoreNet project currently contains 22 locations and more scientific support for land managers is forthcoming.
Paper citation: Havrilla, C.A., Munson, S.M., McCormick, M.L., Laushman, K.M., Balazs, K.R. and Butterfield, B.J., 2020. RestoreNet: An emerging restoration network reveals controls on seeding success across dryland ecosystems. Journal of Applied Ecology.
RAMPS PARTNERS ASSESS BUFFELGRASS TREATMENTS TO AVOID FUTURE CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRES
The Bighorn Fire erupted this June in Tucson, burning 120,000 acres in the Santa Catalina Mountains. The fire burned an estimated 2,000 saguaros. It could have been much worse. Most of the fire occurred at higher elevations, but a portion burned desert vegetation not adapted to fire. Part of what carried this fire across the lower elevation Sonoran Desert scrub vegetation was the invasive buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare). Teams of Tucson residents have been fighting buffelgrass for years in an effort to ‘Save our Saguaros’. This year, RAMPS partnered with Saguaro National Park and the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum to find out where and how removal treatments of buffelgrass is effective. To do this, the group first acquired and organized 23 years of data on buffelgrass treatments and surveys collected by the Saguaro National Park. The dataset provides thousands of data points of buffelgrass abundance recorded between 1997 and 2019 before and after each mechanical or chemical treatment. The next step is to analyze how the changes in buffelgrass abundance respond to treatment types, environmental conditions such as the aspect, slope, vegetation type of the land, and the climatic conditions that varied annually. Equally important for the group is understanding how the treatments and environments interact to affect the efficacy of buffelgrass control. Buffelgrass in certain environments may require more intensive and frequent treatments than others. Prioritizing these environments for buffelgrass treatment and detection is essential for cost-effective control of buffelgrass. The group’s goal is to support more measured control of buffelgrass in southern Arizona, preventing the conversion of the desert scrubland to a fire-prone grassland subject to large-scale, frequent fires that will forever change our cherished Sonoran Desert landscape.
CAN ECOLOGICAL FORECASTING BECOME A NEW TOOL FOR RESOURCE MANAGEMENT?
Natural resource managers are coping with rapid changes in both environmental conditions and ecosystems. Enabled by recent advances in data collection and assimilation, short-term ecological forecasting (EF) may be a powerful tool to help resource managers anticipate impending near-term changes in ecosystem conditions or dynamics. Managers may use the information in forecasts to minimize the adverse effects of ecological stressors and optimize the effectiveness of management actions. To explore the potential for ecological forecasting to enhance natural resource management, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) convened a workshop titled “Building Capacity for Applied Short-Term Ecological Forecasting” on May 29–31, 2019, with participants from several Federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as all mission areas within the USGS. Participants broadly agreed that short-term ecological forecasting—on the order of days to years into the future—has tremendous potential to improve the quality and timeliness of information available to guide resource management decisions. Participants considered how ecological forecasting could directly affect their agency missions and specified numerous critical tools for addressing natural resource management concerns in the 21st century that could be enhanced by ecological forecasting. Given this breadth of possible applications for forecast products, participants developed a repeatable framework for evaluating the potential value of a forecast product for enhancing resource management. Applying that process to a large list of forecast ideas that were developed in a brainstorming session, participants identified a small set of promising forecast products that illustrate the value of ecological forecasting for informing resource management. Workshop outcomes also include insights about important likely obstacles and next steps. In particular, reliable production and delivery of operational ecological forecasts will require a sustained commitment by research agencies, in partnership with resource management agencies, to maintain and improve forecasting tools and capabilities.
Explore the list of promising forecast products defined in the workshop by reading this report co-authored by RAMPS ecologists John Bradford and Molly McCormick.
CLIMATE ADAPTATION: EXPOSURE AND VULNERABILITY IN COLORADO PLATEAU GRASSLANDS
Many ecosystems in the southwestern US are experiencing ongoing aridification due to climate change. USGS RAMPS scientists have been working with the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group (SEUG) to better understand the impacts of climate change on grasslands in the Southwest. The project aims (a) characterize environmental factors (i.e., climate, soils) that drive habitat suitability of priority native perennial grasses in the southwest, and (b) couple this information with future climate projections to predict changes in the habitat suitability for focal grass species under future (more arid) conditions. Results from this work will help scientists and land managers to better understand climate change impacts on Southwest grasslands and build a suite of science-driven management strategies to increase ecological resiliency in Southwest ecosystems, especially those within SEUG parks.
>>>> IN THE FIELD <<<<
DAY ON THE LAND: On June 20, the RAMPS led socially-distanced tours of the RestoreNet experimental plots at the Diablo Trust ranches near Flagstaff, AZ. The tour members followed strict COVID-19 safety protocols. On the tour, participants experienced how RAMPS is promoting landscape productivity via vegetation treatments (seeding and outplanting seedlings from the greenhouse). The ranches became involved with the experiment to better understand how they can mitigate episodic drought that has resulted in the die-off of perennial grasses, thus affecting the sustainability of livestock operations and quality big game habitat. The group of USGS researchers, wildlife professionals, and ranchers plan to scale-up the experiment in the near future with hopes of increasing ecological and economic resiliency in the rangelands of Northern Arizona.
PRESENTATION TO SOUTHWEST INDIAN POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE: On July 6, Molly McCormick, RAMPS Coordinator, virtually presented to the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) as part of a collaborative series between the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area and SIPI. She shared with students some background on the importance of restoration in arid landscapes, and highlighted USGS programs, as well as a number of our RAMPS network organizations, who provide opportunities for people wanting to get more involved and develop a career in restoration.
RESTORENET REPEATES SEEDED EXPERIMENT: The success of re-vegetation efforts in drylands is tightly coupled with seasonal weather conditions. This summer, Katie Laushman, RestoreNet field manager removed plots that have been growing for the past two summers and re-installed the seeding treatments. Even though some of the sites had a decent amount of growth, RAMPS stakeholders want to see if the results we found from the previous effort hold in a different weather year. Stay tuned!
>>>> NEW PROJECTS ON THE HORIZON <<<<
HOW CAN WE LEARN FROM THE PAST TO INFORM TODAY'S MANAGEMENT DECISIONS?
Funding from Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center for collecting and sharing lessons-learned
Drought and wildfire pose enormous threats to the integrity of natural resources that land managers are charged with protecting. Recent observations and forecasts indicate that these stressors will likely produce catastrophic ecosystem transformations, or abrupt changes in the condition of plants, wildlife, and their habitats. To prepare for these impacts and allow for greater flexibility in decision-making, we propose to conduct structured interviews, surveys, and host a field trip and workshop. These participatory activities will target land managers who have not yet experienced abrupt changes, and those who have seen large changes across the lands they manage. By land managers sharing perspectives across diverse ecosystems that have experienced different degrees of drought and wildfire stress, RAMPS will produce new insight on how to better prevent (if possible) and prepare for unwanted changes in land condition. New knowledge generated from this project will be widely shared with land managers throughout the western U.S. so that they can be better stewards of public lands. The project entitled, “Learning from the past and planning for the future: experience-driven insight into managing for ecosystem transformations induced by drought and wildfire,” was recently funded by the USGS Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. SBSC RAMPS is partnering with Northern Arizona University for this project, and we look forward to sharing the results with you.
NEW PROJECT TO EXAMINE POLLINATOR HABITAT ALONG POWER LINE RIGHT-OF-WAYS
SBSC RAMPS receives funding from the Electric Power Research Institute
Many insects, including a diversity of bees and butterflies, perform essential plant pollination services in natural ecosystems and in agricultural settings. Pollinator populations, however, have been declining in recent decades. One factor contributing to pollinator decline is loss of habitat, which provides food and nesting resources to adult and larval pollinators. As urban and agricultural development continues across the landscape, habitats that support native plant and animal species, including pollinators, are degraded or lost. Strategies to increase native plant and pollinator abundance and diversity can reverse degradation and promote ecosystem health across multiple plant communities.
Power line rights-of-way (ROWs) can serve a critical role in the preservation of native plant and pollinator populations across plant communities. ROWs managed using Integrated Vegetation Management (IVM) are capable of supporting pollinator populations because they can suppress harmful non-native invasive plants and promote native plant diversity. ROWs may provide the only habitat in intensively managed regions and can serve as corridors to connect patches of habitat. Integrated vegetation management, which aims to suppress trees and invasive non-native species while encouraging low growing native grasses and forbs, uses a combination of vegetation management practices. Common management practices include mechanical (e.g., mowing, cutting) and herbicide treatments, which can be used in combination to minimize tree and invasive species abundance and maximize native herbaceous species. The reduction of trees and invasive plants, and enhancement of native plant abundance, can vary by the treatments implemented, time since treatment, the plant community treated, and other environmental factors.
The goal of this project is to evaluate how IVM treatments affect plant and pollinator abundance and composition on ROWs in Arizona. Specific objectives are to: 1) determine how different combinations of mechanical and herbicide treatments affect woody overstory, herbaceous understory, and pollinator abundance and composition, 2) compare pollinator abundance and composition on ROWs and habitat adjacent to ROWs across eco-regions in Arizona. Funding for this project comes from Electric Power Research Institute, an organization that provides research and development to the electric sector for the benefit of society. Additional partners include the Salt River Project public utility company and Northern Arizona University.
>>>> RESEARCH FROM OUR PARTNERS <<<<
Updates on research from the USGS SOUTHWEST BIOLOGICAL SCIENCE CENTER on topics relevant to the RAMPS network.
PLANT GENETICS FOR RESTORATION
New research from USGS SBSC sheds light on the development and use of native plant materials in restoration. By looking at genetic patterns in 13 common plant species across the Colorado Plateau, the researchers determined the relationship between geographic distance and genetic distance to inform seed transfer and plant materials development for species that do not have other available information (e.g., species-specific seed transfer zones). Briefly, the relationship suggests that the chance plants at one geographic location are very genetically different to plants at another geographic location increases rapidly - at about 30 miles separation there is approximately an 8% chance that plants are very genetically different, while by 300 miles separation there is about an 80% chance that plants are very genetically different. Mixing genetically different plants when using native plant materials at a restoration site or when mixing seed sources to develop new native plant materials is not desirable because the mixing can 1) reduce the genetic integrity of the native plant (genetic diversity is one critical component of biodiversity, and mixing genetically different plants together can reduce genetic diversity over time) and/or 2) lower the success of the restoration treatment due to negative genetic processes. This matters because many provisional seed transfer zones (PSTZs; i.e., generalized seed transfer zones that are not species specific) cover large distances, and current best practices (i.e., constraining by ecoregions) allows the mixing of seed sources within PSTZs, even if they are >300 miles apart. The take home message: when species-specific information is unavailable, sourcing plant materials closer to your restoration site, or mixing seed sources that are closer to one another for materials development, will help minimize the chance that restoration outcomes will suffer. Many thanks to the BLM Colorado Plateau Native Plant Program for funding this work.
Read a brief about the genetics research here.
SCIENCE, WILDLIFE, & RENEWABLE ENERGY
How can we improve wildlife impacts from renewable energy? New research from SBSC ecologist Jeff Lovich and co-authors recently examined the nexus between wind and solar energy development and wildlife. Research that works to reduce stressors to wildlife and wildlife habitat also reduces the need for difficult and costly mitigation and restoration measures.
The study examines:
- Trends on how wind and solar impact wildlife.
- How siting and site design can maximize energy benefits while also reducing these impacts.
- How before-after control-impact studies can provide managers with conservation metrics for evaluating future development scenarios.
- Other ideas that mitigate impacts to wildlife, like the use of deterrence and detection systems.
Read the paper here. Find out more about Jeff’s research here.
RAMPS is a program of the USGS Southwest Biological Science Center located in Flagstaff, AZ
RAMPS works with stakeholders within DOI, tribal governments, private lands, and state agencies to provide guidance and support for effective restoration strategies across the Southwest U.S. The RAMPS network consists of over 500 people representing 50+ entities working together to increase land productivity and to reduce threats posed by environmental hazards.
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RAMPS is a program of the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area and the Southwest Biological Science Center