Synthesis / Tech Report
This report assesses recent forest disturbance in the Western United States and discusses implications for sustainability. Individual chapters focus on fire, drought, insects, disease, invasive plants, and socioeconomic impacts. Disturbance data came from a variety of sources, including the Forest Inventory and Analysis program, Forest Health Protection, and the National Interagency Fire Center. Disturbance trends with the potential to affect forest sustainability include alterations in fire regimes, periods of drought in some parts of the region, and increases in invasive plants, insects, and disease. Climate affects most disturbance processes, particularly drought, fire, and biotic disturbances, and climate change is expected to continue to affect disturbance processes in various ways and degrees.
Ecological Site Descriptions (ESD) synthesize information concerning soils, hydrology, ecology, and management into a user-friendly document. A crucial component of an ESD is the state-and-transition model (STM) that identifies the different vegetation states, describes the disturbances that caused vegetation change, and suggests restoration activities needed to restore plant communities. State-and-transition models are powerful tools that utilize professional knowledge, data, and literature to describe the resistance and resilience of an ecological site. The STM then captures various disturbances, triggers leading to ecological thresholds, feedback mechanisms maintaining ecological states, and the restoration techniques required for moving from one ecological state to another (Briske et al. 2008, Stringham et al. 2003).
Incorporating spatial and temporal scales into greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) population monitoring strategies is challenging and rarely implemented. Sage-grouse populations experience fluctuations in abundance that lead to temporal oscillations, making trend estimation difficult. Accounting for stochasticity is critical to reliably estimate population trends and investigate variation related to deterministic factors on the landscape, which are amenable to management action. Here, we describe a novel, range-wide hierarchical monitoring framework for sage-grouse centered on four objectives: (1) create a standardized database of lek counts, (2) develop spatial population structures by clustering leks, (3) estimate spatial trends at different temporal extents based on abundance nadirs (troughs), and (4) develop a targeted annual warning system to help inform management decisions. Using automated and repeatable methods (software), we compiled a lek database (as of 2019) that contained 262,744 counts and 8,421 unique lek locations from disparate state data. The hierarchical population units (clusters) included 13 nested levels, identifying biologically relevant units and population structure that minimized inter-cluster sage-grouse movements. With these products, we identified spatiotemporal variation in trends in population abundance using Bayesian state-space models. We estimated 37.0, 65.2, and 80.7-percent declines in abundance range-wide during short (17 years), medium (33 years), and long (53 years) temporal scales, respectively. However, some areas exhibited evidence of increasing trends in abundance in recent decades. Models predicted 12.3, 19.2, and 29.6 percent of populations (defined as clusters of neighboring leks) consisted of over 50-percent probability of extirpation at 19, 38, and 56-year projections from 2019, respectively, based on averaged annual rate of change in apparent abundance across two, four, and six oscillations (average period of oscillation is 9.4 years). At the lek level, models predicted 45.7, 60.1, and 78.0 percent of leks with over 50-percent extirpation probabilities over the same time periods, respectively, mostly located on the periphery of the species’ range. The targeted annual warning system automates annual identification of local populations exhibiting asynchronous decline relative to regional population patterns using simulated management actions and an optimization algorithm for evaluating range-wide stabilization of population abundance. In 2019, approximately 3.2 percent of leks and 2.0 percent of populations were identified by the targeted annual warning system for management intervention range-wide.
There are thousands of abandoned mine land (AML) sites in the U.S. that need to be restored to reduce wind and water erosion, provide wildlife forage, shade streams, and improve productivity. Biochar created from woody biomass that would normally be burned in slash piles can be applied to soil to improve soil properties and is one method to restore AML soil productive capacity. Using this ‘waste’ biomass for biochar and reclamation activities will reduce wildfire risk, air pollution from burning, and particulates released from burning wood. Biochar has the potential to improve water quality, bind heavy metals, or decrease toxic chemical concentrations, while improving soil health to establish sustainable plant cover, thereby preventing soil erosion, leaching, or other unintended, negative environmental consequences. Using forest residues to create biochar also helps reduce woody biomass and improves forest health and resilience. We address concerns surrounding organic and inorganic contaminants on the biochar and how this might affect its’ efficacy and provide valuable information to increase restoration activities on AMLs using biochar alone or in combination with other organic amendments. Several examples of AML biochar restoration sites initiated to evaluate short- and long-term above- and belowground ecosystem responses are presented.
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The Strategic Plan also defines critical, core fire science capabilities for understanding fire-related and fire-responsive earth system processes and patterns and informing management decision making. The Strategic Plan is composed of four integrated priorities, each with associated goals and specific strategies for accomplishing the goals:
- Priority 1: Produce state-of-the-art, actionable fire science.—Provide scientific analyses, data, and tools that inform current and future fire and land management decision making and promote understanding of fire-related and fire-responsive earth system processes and patterns.
- Priority 2: Engage stakeholders in science production and science delivery.—Use a science co-production approach throughout the fire research life cycle to develop and maintain collaborations with stakeholders who are actively and continually engaged. This ensures that USGS research platforms and science products are relevant and useful for fire and land management decision making.
- Priority 3: Effectively communicate USGS fire science capacity, products, and information to a broad audience.— Strategically manage communications to effectively build awareness of and access to USGS wildland fire science and decision-support tools among key external and internal stakeholders.
- Priority 4: Enhance USGS organizational structure and advance support for fire science.—Provide organizational structure and support that improves fire science production, coordination, and cooperation within the USGS and with external partners.
The sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) biome, its wildlife, and the services and benefits it provides people and local communities are at risk. Development in the sagebrush biome, for many purposes, has resulted in multiple and often cumulative negative impacts. These impacts, ranging from simple habitat loss to complex, interactive changes in ecosystem function, continue to accelerate even as the need grows for the resources provided by this biome. This “Sagebrush Conservation Strategy—Challenges to Sagebrush Conservation,” is an overview and assessment of the challenges facing land managers and landowners in conserving sagebrush ecosystems. This strategy is intended to provide guidance so that the unparalleled collaborative efforts to conserve the iconic greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) by State and Federal agencies, Tribes, academia, nongovernmental organizations, and stakeholders can be expanded to the entire sagebrush biome to benefit the people and wildlife that depend on this ecosystem. This report is organized into 3 parts.
“Part I. Importance of the Sagebrush Biome to People and Wildlife” introduces the biome and a subset of the more than 350 species of plants and animals associated with sagebrush for which there is some level of conservation concern. These include several sagebrush obligates that have been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.), including greater sage-grouse, Gunnison sage-grouse (C. minimus; listed as threatened), and pygmy rabbit (Brachylagus idahoensis). Other sagebrush-dependent species, such as pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), have experienced significant population declines.
“Part II. Change Agents in the Sagebrush Biome—Extent, Impacts, and Effort to Address Them” is an overview of the variety of change agents that are causing the continued loss and degradation of sagebrush. Topics covered include altered fire regimes, invasive plant species, conifer expansion, overabundant free-roaming equids, and human land uses, including energy development, cropland conversion, infrastructure, and improper livestock grazing. Climate changes, including warmer temperatures and altered amounts and timing of precipitation, have and will likely increasingly compound negative effects to sagebrush ecosystems from all these threats.
“Part III. Current Conservation Paradigm and Other Conservation Needs for Sagebrush” begins with an overview of how sage-grouse conservation, and the associated efforts and collaborations, may be able to address threats to and restoring degraded sagebrush and habitat for other sagebrush-dependent and -associated species. Meeting conservation goals for sage-grouse, mule deer, pygmy rabbits, and other sagebrush-associated wildlife will require extensive restoration of sagebrush communities already converted or degraded by the change agents outlined in Part II of this report. Concepts, considerations, techniques for restoration, and adaptive management and monitoring are discussed to help set the stage for potential strategies to improve conditions throughout the sagebrush biome. Communication, outreach, and engagement can enhance grassroots conservation efforts and build the next generation of managers, practitioners, scientists, and communicators who will care for the sagebrush ecosystem and stimulate or sustain public participation in sagebrush conservation issues.
Invasive Species in Forests and Rangelands of the United States is a sector-wide scientific assessment of the current state of invasive species science and research in the United States. Leading experts on invasive pests, climate change, social sciences, and forest and rangeland management contributed to highlighting the science and identifying knowledge gaps on a diverse array of topics related to invasive species. Stakeholders from nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, professional organizations, private corporations, and state and federal agencies representing public, private, and tribal interests also provided input to the assessment. Input from these stakeholders helped to frame the subject matter content and management options presented in this report, ensuring relevance for decision-makers and resource managers.
Today, American conservation confronts the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis, a global pandemic, skeptics of these threats, a massive federal deficit, economic hardship, social injustice, and political divisions that threaten our democracy. Yet, at the same time, people continue to explore new ways to work together to use science, collaboration, and innovation to advance efforts to protect our environment, conserve our natural resource legacy, and broaden its benefits for all Americans.
The researchers report on creating an unburned area data set for the Inland Northwest from 1984 – 2014 and subsequent analyses using this dataset. Here are some of the key findings for this JFSP project:
- Unburned area occurrence is consistent or stabilized to-date, with no evidence of increasing or decreasing trends under current climate conditions
- Unburned areas are utilized by sage grouse and help maintain viable populations when these fire refugia are present
- Persistent unburned islands are ecologically important areas and are related to specific topography and fuel type characteristics
- Persistent unburned area attributes differ between forests and rangelands
In 2009, at the behest of Congress, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the US Department of the Interior (DOI) were asked to develop a national, government-wide climate adaptation strategy for fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems. In doing so, the Federal Government recognized the immensity of climate change impacts on the Nation’s vital natural resources, as well as the critical need for partnership among federal, state, and tribal fish and wildlife agencies. More than 90 diverse technical, scientific, and management experts from across the country participated in the development and, in 2012, the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (Strategy) was published. Designed to “inspire and enable natural resource managers, legislators, and other decision makers to take effective steps towards climate change adaptation over the next five to ten years,” the time has come for the natural resource community to consider the impact of the Strategy, while identifying the necessary evolution of it, to continue to effectively safeguard the Nation’s natural resources in a changing climate.