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Are drought indices and climate data good indicators of ecologically relevant soil moisture dynamics in drylands?

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In this study, we tested components of climatic water balance, including standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI) and SPEI computation lengths, to recreate multi-decadal and periodic soil-moisture patterns across soil profiles at 866 sites in the western United States. Modeling results show that SPEI calculated over the prior 12-months was the most predictive computation length and could recreate changes in moisture availability within the soil profile over longer periods of time and for annual recharge of deeper soil moisture stores. SPEI was slightly less successful with recreating spring surface-soil moisture availability, which is key to dryland ecosystems dominated by winter precipitation. Meteorological drought indices like SPEI are intended to be convenient and generalized indicators of meteorological water deficit. However, the inconsistent ability of SPEI to recreate ecologically relevant patterns of soil moisture at regional scales suggests that process-based models, and the larger data requirements they involve, remain an important tool for dryland ecohydrology.

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Virtual fencing effectively excludes cattle from burned sagebrush steppe

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We evaluated the use of a “virtual fence” (VF) for excluding cattle from burned areas within small pastures in the sagebrush steppe of southeast Oregon. VF technology (Vence Corporation, San Francisco, CA) uses satellite-controlled collars that direct animal movement within user-defined polygons using auditory and electrical cues. We fall-burned a 0.6-ha area in each of six adjacent 2.1-ha pastures in a Wyoming big sagebrush plant community in 2019. In June 2020, each pasture was stocked with 3 mature dry cows for 14 d. All cows were fitted with VF collars; collars were programed to create a virtual fence around the burned area within three of the pastures (VF treatment), and remaining pastures had electrical and auditory cues turned off (control treatment). Collars recorded animal location every 5 min. Cows in the control treatment initially spent up to 40% of their time within the burned area, and forage utilization of the burned area was nearly 70%. Cows in the VF treatment spent approximately 4% of their time in the burned area on day 1 and were recorded in the burn only incidentally thereafter; forage utilization in the burn was < 3%.

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Weather explains differences in sagebrush-obligate songbird nest success under various grazing regimes

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Sagebrush Sparrow daily nest survival decreased in hotter and drier weather. Brewer’s Sparrow nest survival was resilient to most weather. Vegetation was influenced by grazing but did not decrease nest survival. Weather influenced sparrow nest survival more than grazing regime.

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Greater sage-grouse respond positively to intensive post-fire restoration treatments

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We investigated habitat selection by 28 male greater sage-grouse during each of 3 years after a 113,000-ha wildfire in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem in Idaho and Oregon. During the study period, seeding and herbicide treatments were applied for habitat restoration. We evaluated sage-grouse responses to vegetation and post-fire restoration treatments. Throughout the 3 years post-fire, sage-grouse avoided areas with high exotic annual grass cover but selected strongly for recovering sagebrush and moderately strongly for perennial grasses. By the third year post-fire, they preferred high-density sagebrush, especially in winter when sagebrush is the primary component of the sage-grouse diet. Sage-grouse preferred forb habitat immediately post-fire, especially in summer, but this selection preference was less strong in later years. They also selected areas that were intensively treated with herbicide and seeded with sagebrush, grasses, and forbs, although these responses varied with time since treatment.

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Grazing effects on shrub-induced resource islands and herbaceous vegetation heterogeneity in sagebrush-steppe communities

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We investigated the long-term (+80 yrs.) effects of moderate grazing by cattle on sagebrush-induced spatial heterogeneity in soil nutrients, herbaceous vegetation, and ground cover in sagebrush-bunchgrass steppe communities at eight sites in southeastern Oregon. Each site consisted of a long-term grazing exclosure and an adjacent grazed area. Almost all measured herbaceous vegetation (cover, density, diversity, and evenness) and ground cover variables differed between canopy and interspace microsites. Grazing did not influence the effects of microsites on most measured herbaceous vegetation characteristics and ground cover variables. Available soil nutrients were not influenced by grazing, but the majority differed between microsites. The limited effect of moderate grazing on shrub-induced spatial heterogeneity provides evidence that sagebrush exerts a strong influence on patterns of soil nutrients and herbaceous vegetation in sagebrush-bunchgrass communities.

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Moderate grazing in fall-winter reduces exotic annual grasses in sagebrush-bunchgrass steppe

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We compared moderate grazing during the off season with not grazing in five Wyoming big sagebrush−bunchgrass communities in the northern Great Basin. Treatments were applied annually for 10 yr (2009−2010 through 2018−2019). Plant community characteristics were measured after treatments had been applied from 6 to 10 yr. Off-season grazing reduced exotic annual grass density and cover. After a decade, annual grass cover was twofold greater in ungrazed areas. Sandberg bluegrass density increased with off-season grazing, but large bunchgrass density was similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed areas. Perennial and annual forb density and cover were similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed treatments. Biological soil crust cover was also similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed areas.

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What’s driving the proliferation of exotic annual grasses in sagebrush? Comparing fire with off-season grazing

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We compared 1) burned and ungrazed (burned), 2) off-season, moderately grazed and unburned (grazed), and 3) ungrazed and unburned (control) treatments at five Wyoming big sagebrush sites in southeastern Oregon for half a decade. Fire, but not off-season grazing, substantially increased exotic annual grass cover and abundance. Vegetation cover and density were generally similar between grazed and control areas. In contrast, at the end of the study exotic annual grass cover and density were over fourfold greater in burned areas. Exotic annual grass became the dominant plant group in burned areas, but not in grazed and control areas. Cover and density of annual forbs, predominately non-native species, were generally greater in the burned compared with grazed and control treatments. Fire also decreased soil biological crust cover and sagebrush cover and density compared with grazed and control treatments. This study provides strong evidence that fire is a threat to the sustainability of Wyoming big sagebrush communities at risk of exotic annual grass dominance, but that off-season, moderate grazing poses little risk. However, considering the spatial extent of our study was limited, further evaluations are needed across a larger geographic area.

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Four paths toward realizing the full potential of using native plants during ecosystem restoration in the Intermountain West

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Several important paths to improved success of native plant restoration are clear: recognize and leverage intraspecific variation and local adaptation in plants, increase the development and use of seed transfer guidance, build seed production partnerships to benefit restoration and local communities, and be ready and willing to adopt changes to the way things are done when the evidence is clear that change will help.

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Frequency of disturbance mitigates high-severity fire in the Lake Tahoe Basin

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Study results suggest increasing the frequency of disturbances (a lower disturbance return interval [DRI]) would reduce the percentage of high-severity fire on landscape but not the total amount of wildfire in general. However, a higher DRI reduced carbon storage and sequestration, particularly in management strategies that emphasized prescribed fire over hand or mechanical fuel treatments.

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Human ignitions on private lands drive USFS cross-boundary wildfire transmission and community impacts in western US

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Here, we use lands administered by the US Forest Service as a study system to assess the causes, ignition locations, structure loss, and social and biophysical factors associated with cross-boundary fire activity over the past three decades. Results show that cross-boundary fires were primarily caused by humans on private lands. Cross-boundary ignitions, area burned, and structure losses were concentrated in California. Public lands managed by the US Forest Service were not the primary source of fires that destroyed the most structures. Cross-boundary fire activity peaked in moderately populated landscapes with dense road and jurisdictional boundary networks. Fire transmission is increasing, and evidence suggests it will continue to do so in the future. Effective cross-boundary fire risk management will require cross-scale risk co-governance. Focusing on minimizing damages to high-value assets may be more effective than excluding fire from multijurisdictional landscapes.

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