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Wildfire, climate, and invasive grass interactions negatively impact an indicator species by reshaping sagebrush ecosystems

January 1, 2007

Iconic sagebrush ecosystems of the American West are threatened by larger and more frequent wildfires that can kill sagebrush and facilitate invasion by annual grasses, creating a cycle that alters sagebrush ecosystem recovery post disturbance. Thwarting this accelerated grass–fire cycle is at the forefront of current national conservation efforts, yet its impacts on wildlife populations inhabiting these ecosystems have not been quantified rigorously. Within a Bayesian framework, we modeled 30 y of wildfire and climatic effects on population rates of change of a sagebrush-obligate species, the greater sage-grouse, across the Great Basin of western North America. Importantly, our modeling also accounted for variation in sagebrush recovery time post fire as determined by underlying soil properties that influence ecosystem resilience to disturbance and resistance to invasion. Our results demonstrate that the cumulative loss of sagebrush to direct and indirect effects of wildfire has contributed strongly to declining sage-grouse populations over the past 30 y at large spatial scales. Moreover, long-lasting effects from wildfire nullified pulses of sage-grouse population growth that typically follow years of higher precipitation. If wildfire trends continue unabated, model projections indicate sage-grouse populations will be reduced to 43% of their current numbers over the next three decades. Our results provide a timely example of how altered fire regimes are disrupting recovery of sagebrush ecosystems and leading to substantial declines of a widespread indicator species. Accordingly, we present scenario-based stochastic projections to inform conservation actions that may help offset the adverse effects of wildfire on sage-grouse and other wildlife populations.