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Ecological effects of pinyon-juniper removal in the Western United States—A synthesis of scientific research, January 2014–March 2021

June 21, 2023

Executive Summary

Increasing density of pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands (hereinafter “pinyon-juniper”), as well as expansion of these woodlands into adjacent shrublands and grasslands, has altered ecosystem function and wildlife habitat across large areas of the interior western United States. Although there are many natural and human-caused drivers of woodland infilling and expansion, restoration of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) habitat through removal of pinyon-juniper is considered an urgent management objective in many locations, particularly in support of sagebrush-dependent wildlife species of conservation concern. In December 2020, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) established the Pinyon-Juniper Management Categorical Exclusion (PJCX) to expedite the regulatory process for pinyon-juniper removal projects on public lands, largely intended to benefit mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) habitats. During final preparation of this report, the BLM discontinued use of the PJCX (as of November, 2022), but the pinyon-juniper tree removal techniques assessed in this report are commonly used and understanding their effects remains relevant to land use planning.

To address areas of uncertainty relative to potential ecological effects of the PJCX, we conducted a review of the peer-reviewed science literature to better understand the likely responses of vegetation, environmental (for example, soils), and wildlife variables to specific tree removal techniques permitted by the PJCX. In brief, the PJCX permitted removal of trees by either manual cutting, mechanical cutting, or mastication; allowed certain methods to redistribute or remove resulting tree biomass after treatment; and prohibited broadcast burning, roadbuilding, removal of old-growth, and seeding of non-native species. Specifically, we conducted our review to address the following questions:

  1. How will PJCX removal techniques affect plant communities, soils, and abiotic resources?
  2. How do these pinyon-juniper removal techniques affect wildlife communities, including both woodland- and sagebrush-dependent species?
  3. What are the potential ecological implications of different pinyon-juniper removal treatment types and implementation strategies (for example, treatment sizes) over time?
  4. What are the most important gaps in our scientific understanding of how treatments might affect targeted ecosystems over space and time (for example, potential effects of climate change)?

To answer these questions, we considered studies related to pinyon-juniper ecosystems, focusing on research that occurred over a large portion of the interior western United States that is the primary focus of the PJCX. We also focused on papers published from 2014 onward, to avoid excessive overlap with other recent reviews on pinyon-juniper management effects. Using strict criteria, including only considering research that tested responses for statistical significance, we identified 48 papers that primarily examined treatment effects on vegetation and other environmental variables (1,709 responses), and 11 papers that addressed effects on wildlife (132 responses). Responses to the PJCX-permitted treatments were summarized as either positive (that is, a significant increase), negative (that is, a significant decrease), or non-significant (that is, no significant difference). Responses were assigned to categories (for example, Native Annual Grass/Forb Abundance) and hierarchical treatment levels.

We found that there were large proportions of non-significant responses among all categories combined, with roughly half or more of all responses non-significant (48 percent for wildlife, 60 percent for vegetation-environmental), comparable to other recent systematic reviews of pinyon-juniper treatment effects. However, we also found that when there were significant responses, some important trends potentially emerged. Important undesirable outcomes included far more positive than negative responses of exotic grass and forb abundance among nearly all treatment types. Cutting treatments were also more likely to decrease biocrust cover and microbial activity. Potentially beneficial outcomes included mostly positive responses among sagebrush obligate species, including more positive than negative responses for mule deer and sage-grouse. Some treatment types (for example, mastication) also resulted in more positive than negative responses for native grasses and forbs (although, non-significant responses were the majority). We also highlighted many limitations of this review, including how responses often come from few studies, and how some response-treatment category combinations lack adequate response data. Moreover, the existing research is often insufficient to address many key questions about treatment effects, largely owing to short time-scales and limited spatial extents of observations, which do not match the size of treatments being implemented by land managers, nor capture long-term, post-treatment ecological dynamics. We also identify a lack of research that addresses key interactions that could undermine restoration objectives, including potential effects of climate change and grazing on post-treatment environments. Thus, we emphasize the importance of integrating these factors into future pinyon-juniper treatment research, and we stress the need for use of monitoring programs and research studies that partake in data collection and analysis over long durations and broad spatial scales.

Publication Year 2023
Title Ecological effects of pinyon-juniper removal in the Western United States—A synthesis of scientific research, January 2014–March 2021
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231041
Authors Douglas J. Shinneman, Susan K. McIlroy, Sharon A Poessel, Rosemary L. Downing, Tracey N. Johnson, Aaron C. Young, Todd E. Katzner
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2023-1041
Index ID ofr20231041
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center