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Resilience to fire and resistance to annual grass invasion in sagebrush ecosystems of US National Parks

June 21, 2021

Western North American sagebrush shrublands and steppe face accelerating risks from fire-driven feedback loops that transition these ecosystems into self-reinforcing states dominated by invasive annual grasses. In response, sagebrush conservation decision-making is increasingly done through the lens of resilience to fire and annual grass invasion resistance. Operationalizing resilience and resistance concepts requires place-based understanding of resilience and resistance variation among landscapes over time. Place-based insights allow for landscape prioritization in targeted areas of significance such as protected-area sagebrush ecosystems that exhibit inherently low resilience and are therefore at high risk of loss. We used a multi-scale approach to evaluate sagebrush resiliency and strategic planning across 1) the US National Park system, 2) a regional suite of five parks, and 3) for two specific park case studies. First, we summarized broad patterns of relative resilience to fire and resistance to annual grass invasion across all parks with sagebrush ecosystems. We found that national parks represented ~11% of US protected-area sagebrush ecosystems and reflected a similar low-resilience bias that occurs across the biome, broadly. Climate change is likely to shift both low- and high-resilience park sagebrush ecosystems towards moderate resiliency, creating new opportunities and constraints for park conservation. Approximately seventy park units include at least some sagebrush shrublands or steppe, but we identified 40 parks with substantial amounts (>20% of park area) that can be included in an agency-wide conservation strategy. Second, we examined detailed patterns of resilience and resistance, fire history and fire risk, cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) invasion, and sagebrush shrub (Artemisia spp.) persistence in five national park units in Columbia Basin and Snake River Plain sagebrush steppe, contextualized by the broader summary. In these five parks, fire frequency and size increased in recent decades. Cheatgrass invasion and sagebrush persistence correlated strongly with resilience, burn frequency (0–3 fires since ~1940), and burn probability, but with important variation, in part mediated by local-scale topography. Third, we used these insights to assemble strategic sagebrush ecosystem fire protection mapping scenarios in two additional parks – Lava Beds National Monument and Great Basin National Park. Readily available and periodically updated geospatial data including soil surveys, fire histories, vegetation inventories, and long-term monitoring support resiliency-based adaptive management through tactical planning of pre-fire protection, post-fire restoration, and triage. Our assessment establishes the precarious importance of the US national park system to sagebrush ecosystem conservation and an operational strategy for place-based and science-supported conservation.

Publication Year 2021
Title Resilience to fire and resistance to annual grass invasion in sagebrush ecosystems of US National Parks
DOI 10.1016/j.gecco.2021.e01689
Authors Thomas J. Rodhouse, Jeffrey Lonneker, Lisa Bowersock, Diana Popp, Jamela Thompson, Gordon Dicus, Kathryn M. Irvine
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Global Ecology and Conservation
Index ID 70224309
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center