Letters From the West

Seeding after wildfire doesn’t help sage grouse much

This is sagebrush burning at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in association with a management project located 65 miles northeast of Lakeview, OR. (USGS photo)

This is sagebrush burning at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in association with a management project located 65 miles northeast of Lakeview, OR. (USGS photo)

The emergency post-fire seeding done to stabilize soils is not helping sage grouse, U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Forest Service researchers said in a paper published Monday in the journal “Ecosphere.”

The new study looked at burned areas seeded eight to 20 years later. They found that whether treated or not, the areas generally lacked shrubs even after 20 years, and in low elevation areas especially, non-native plants like cheatgrass were often too prevalent for burned sites to be used as sage grouse habitat.

This is important because it means that for at least 20 years following wildfire, burned areas of the Great Basin are not likely to be used by sage grouse, regardless of emergency stabilization treatment. With this kind of time lag, a substantial amount of sage grouse habitat is lost each year to wildfire, while relatively little is gained through natural plant succession or emergency stabilization.

The study found that even relatively small amounts of non-native plants and human development were both forms of habitat loss that affected whether sage grouse would use particular locations.

“This is part of a growing body of science demonstrating how difficult it is to rehabilitate sagebrush landscapes once native vegetation is lost through wildfire,” said USGS ecologist David Pilliod, who co-authored the publication.

Some individual seeding projects did result in higher-quality habitat, and the authors evaluated the environmental conditions shared by these sites to determine where post-fire rehabilitation is more likely to benefit sage grouse. Seeding projects that were most effective tended to occur in cool, moderately moist climates and also depended on post-treatment precipitation and surrounding landscape conditions.

But overall, the study confirmed what Idaho Department of Fish and Game sage grouse expert Jack Connelly has been saying for more than a decade. Restoring sage grouse habitat is not as effective as protecting what we already have.

“When we compared these vegetation and landscape conditions to those of post-wildfire rehabilitation sites, we found that the probability of sage-grouse using treated areas was low and not very different from burned areas that had not been treated,” said USGS ecologist Robert Arkle, the lead author of the publication.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West