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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Scientific review of great basin wildfire issues

Authors
item CLEMENTS, DARIN
item Drew, Jeremy - RESOURCE CONCEPTS

Submitted to: Popular Publication
Publication Type: Popular Publication
Publication Acceptance Date: April 29, 2008
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: In September 2007 the College of Agriculture, University Nevada Reno and Resource Concepts, Inc., Carson City, Nevada co-sponsored a symposium in which 15 scientists with more than 550 years of combined research experience in Great Basin environments tackled the issues pertaining to wildfires in these environments. Such issues as cheatgrass control, livestock grazing, soil erosion, restoration/revegetation, pinyon/juniper encroachment, wildfire intervals, and economic relations of wildfire suppression and wildlife damage were among the topics covered. Wildfire has significantly increased throughout the Great Basin and the loss of critical browse communities threaten such species as sage grouse and mule deer as well as decrease the forage base for sustainable livestock grazing. The failure to control such invasive species as cheatgrass through innovative weed control practices or to successfully restore or revegetate following wildfires has resulted in further degradation of these Great Basin environments. The encroachment of pinyon/juniper woodlands in the last 140-150 years has increased stand density and rapidly spread into shrub/perennial grass communities. Many of these stands are well over 50% canopy cover which has significantly decreased understory species, ability of these understory species to return following wildfires, and has increased catastrophic wildfire events through such dense fuel stands. The current state of wildfire events in the Great Basin is negatively impacting wildlife, livestock grazing, economies, and threatening life and property. Something has got to change, so it is imperial that science provide the best information possible to manage these natural resources and to use those methods and materials that are most effective.

Technical Abstract: The University Nevada Reno, College of Agriculture and Resource Concepts Inc., co-sponsored a Great Basin Wildfire Forum in September 2007 to address a “Scientific Review of the Ecological and Management History of Great Basin Natural Resources and Recommendations to Achieve Ecosystem Restoration”. Sixteen scientists from Great Basin environments with more than 550 years of collective experience were invited to address these issues and make recommendations. The greatest threat to Great basin environments was the invasion of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and the role of wildfire in these environments. Cheatgrass was accidentally introduced to North America in the late 1800s through contaminated wheat. The introduction and subsequent invasion of cheatgrass onto millions of acres of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata)/perennial bunchgrass communities has been devastating to wildlife resources, domestic livestock resources, economic resources, and plant community function. Cheatgrass provides a fine textured, early maturing fuel that increases the chance of ignition as well as the rate, spread and season of wildfires. Historical wildfire intervals in these communities are estimated at 60-110 years, but now are occurring every 5-10 years. This interval is far too often to allow the return of woody species back into the environment. Cheatgrass out competes native perennials for limited moisture and therefore truncates secondary succession. The ability to control cheatgrass through innovative weed control practices such as discing and herbicidal fallows has met with very limited success. There is political pressure to use native species in these restoration efforts, but the ability of these native species to compete with or suppress cheatgrass has met with large failures for more than 3 decades. These failures have lead to further degradation. To successfully suppress cheatgrass you need a competitive perennial grass about one every foot. Crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) has experienced the best results. Resource managers and policy makers need to understand that this perennial grass is just one example of a species that can compete with cheatgrass, decrease fuel loads and decrease wildfire intervals so that important native species can return to these habitats. Other recommendations are also discussed.

Last Modified: 8/19/2014
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