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ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Burns, Oregon » Range and Meadow Forage Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #391376

Research Project: Restoration and Conservation of Great Basin Ecosystems

Location: Range and Meadow Forage Management Research

Title: Trends, impacts, and cost of catastrophic and frequent wildfires in the sagebrush biome

item CRIST, MICHELE - Bureau Of Land Management
item BELGER, RICK - Bureau Of Land Management
item Davies, Kirk
item DAVIS, DAWN - Us Fish And Wildlife Service
item MELDRUM, JAMES - Us Geological Survey (USGS)
item SHINNEMAN, DOUGLAS - Us Geological Survey (USGS)
item REMINGTON, THOMAS - Western Association Of Fish And Wildlife Agencies
item WELTY, JUSTIN - Us Geological Survey (USGS)
item MAYER, KENNETH - Western Association Of Fish And Wildlife Agencies

Submitted to: Rangeland Ecology and Management
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 3/6/2023
Publication Date: 4/27/2023
Citation: Crist, M.R., Belger, R., Davies, K.W., Davis, D.M., Meldrum, J.R., Shinneman, D.J., Remington, T.E., Welty, J., Mayer, K.E. 2023. Trends, impacts, and cost of catastrophic and frequent wildfires in the sagebrush biome. Rangeland Ecology and Management. 89:3-19.

Interpretive Summary: Fire regimes in sagebrush ecosystems have been greatly altered across the western United States. This has led to many sagebrush-perennial grass communities transitioning to highly flammable, non-native, annual plant communities. We synthesized the literature to determine the scope of the problem and to provide management suggestions. Increased management flexibility, prioritization based on ecological need, and commitment to longer-term pre- and post-fire management are needed to achieve notable reductions in large, frequent, catastrophic wildfires. Though strategically applied efforts can help decrease the probability of wildfires, large wildfires will remain a management challenge due to continued climate change, increases in human population, and large-scale expansion of invasive annual grasses. This synthesis is of interest to land, wildlife, and fire managers and scientists, and policy makers.

Technical Abstract: Fire regimes in sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystems have been greatly altered across the western United States. Broad-scale invasion of non-native annual grasses, climate change, and human activities have accelerated wildfire cycles, increased fire size and severity, and lengthened fire seasons in many sagebrush ecosystems to the point that current wildfire-management practices and postfire restoration efforts cannot keep pace to ameliorate the ecological consequences of sagebrush ecosystem loss. The greatest impact of uncharacteristically frequent fire is the transition from native sagebrush-perennial grass communities to invasive, non-native, annual grasslands that are highly flammable. These community transitions are often permanent, owing to the low probability of reestablishing native perennial plants in non-native annual grass-dominated communities. Moreover, these grasses can form extensive and continuous fine fuel loads that promote more frequent fire and the continued expansion of invasive, non-native annuals. More frequent, larger, and severe wildfires necessitate greater resources for fire-prevention, fire-suppression, and postfire restoration activities, while decreasing critical ecosystem services, economic and recreational opportunities, and cultural traditions. Increased flexibility and better prioritization of management activities based on ecological needs, including commitment to long-term prefire and postfire management, are needed to achieve notable reductions in uncharacteristic wildfire activity and associated negative impacts. Collaboration and partnerships across jurisdictional boundaries, agencies, and disciplines can improve consistency in sagebrush-management approaches and thereby contribute to this effort. Here, we provide a synthesis on sagebrush wildfire trends and the impacts of uncharacteristic fire regimes on sagebrush plant communities, dependent wildlife species, fire-suppression costs, and ecosystem services. We also provide an overview of wildland fire coordination efforts among federal, state, and tribal entities.