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Trends, impacts, and cost of catastrophic and frequent wildfires in the sagebrush biome

April 27, 2023

Fire regimes in sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystems have been greatly altered across the western United States. Broad-scale invasion of non-native annual grasses, climate change, and human activities have accelerated wildfire cycles, increased fire size and severity, and lengthened fire seasons in many sagebrush ecosystems to the point that current wildfire-management practices and postfire restoration efforts cannot keep pace to ameliorate the ecological consequences of sagebrush ecosystem loss. The greatest impact of uncharacteristically frequent fire is the transition from native sagebrush-perennial grass communities to invasive, non-native, annual grasslands that are highly flammable. These community transitions are often permanent, owing to the low probability of reestablishing native perennial plants in non-native annual grass−dominated communities. Moreover, these grasses can form extensive and continuous fine fuel loads that promote more frequent fire and the continued expansion of invasive, non-native annuals. More frequent, larger, and severe wildfires necessitate greater resources for fire-prevention, fire-suppression, and postfire restoration activities, while decreasing critical ecosystem services, economic and recreational opportunities, and cultural traditions. Increased flexibility and better prioritization of management activities based on ecological needs, including commitment to long-term prefire and postfire management, are needed to achieve notable reductions in uncharacteristic wildfire activity and associated negative impacts. Collaboration and partnerships across jurisdictional boundaries, agencies, and disciplines can improve consistency in sagebrush-management approaches and thereby contribute to this effort. Here, we provide a synthesis on sagebrush wildfire trends and the impacts of uncharacteristic fire regimes on sagebrush plant communities, dependent wildlife species, fire-suppression costs, and ecosystem services. We also provide an overview of wildland fire coordination efforts among federal, state, and tribal entities.

Publication Year 2023
Title Trends, impacts, and cost of catastrophic and frequent wildfires in the sagebrush biome
DOI 10.1016/j.rama.2023.03.003
Authors Michele R. Crist, Rick Belger, Kirk W. Davies, Dawn M. Davis, James Meldrum, Douglas J. Shinneman, Thomas E. Remington, Justin L. Welty, Kenneth E. Mayer
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Rangeland Ecology and Management
Index ID 70245410
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center