Slowing fire-related population declines in greater sage-grouse in the Great Basin over the next 30 years may depend on the intensity of fire suppression efforts in core breeding areas and long-term patterns of precipitation, according to a just-published USGS-led study.
The authors conducted an extensive analysis of wildfire and climatic effects on greater sage-grouse population growth derived from 30 years (1984-2013) of breeding area-count data, along with wildfire and precipitation patterns. They constructed a model that also simulated different post-fire recovery times for sagebrush habitats based on soil attributes — soil moisture and temperature maps — that strongly influence resilience to wildfire and resistance to invasive grass species.
This research links multi-decadal patterns of wildfire across the Great Basin with multi-decadal data on greater sage-grouse population dynamics and climate.
If the current trend in wildfire continues unabated, model results predicted steady and substantial declines of greater sage-grouse populations across the Great Basin, with an average of about half of current population numbers being lost by the mid-2040s.
The researchers also found that greater sage-grouse populations increased following periods of above-average precipitation; however the long-lasting effects of wildfire in greater sage-grouse breeding areas negated the positive effects associated with precipitation.
Forecasted climate change may result in less precipitation and warmer, drier soils in sagebrush ecosystems, leaving greater sage-grouse habitat vulnerable to increasingly frequent wildfires. Fire is a natural process in sagebrush ecosystems, but burn size and frequency in the Great Basin have increased over the past few decades in response to the increasing expansion of invasive grasses, primarily cheatgrass.
Wildfires kill nearly all native species of sagebrush, which can transform the habitat into landscapes dominated by invasive grasses when soils are warm and dry. In turn, the presence of invasive grasses can prevent sagebrush from returning and, by serving as tinder, result in a positive feedback loop that promotes more wildfires in future years.
“Greater sage-grouse population persistence may be compromised as sagebrush ecosystems and sage-grouse habitat become more impacted by fire and a changing climate,” said Peter Coates, a research scientist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. “Our research shows that targeted fire suppression in core sage-grouse areas is vital to help conserve large blocks of the best habitat for sage-grouse in the Great Basin,”
Scientists also examined different management scenarios that could help offset adverse wildfire effects on greater sage-grouse populations, especially when focused on areas with the best sage-grouse habitat and the greatest number of breeding sage-grouse.
For example, reducing the trend in annual cumulative burned area near leks sites within 3.1 miles (5 km) by 25 percent in identified greater sage-grouse core areas is predicted to do little to prevent population declines over the next 30 years, but reducing it by 75 percent in the same period would substantially slow the decline even under below-average precipitation conditions, stabilize it under normal conditions and result in population growth under above-average conditions.
Coates noted that further long-term research can help identify populations that are most at risk from wildfire or changing climate and lead to more effective targeting of management resources for conservation of sagebrush and greater sage-grouse populations.
This peer-reviewed research, Long-term effects of wildfire on sage-grouse populations: an integration of population and ecosystem ecology for management in the Great Basin, was authored by Peter Coates, USGS; M.A. Ricca, USGS; B.G. Prochazka, USGS; , K.E. Doherty, USFWS; M.L. Brooks, USGS; and M.L. Casazza, USGS.