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HomeARSMaintaining Sagebrush-Covered Landscapes Keeps Water on the Land for Ranchers and Wildlife

Maintaining Sagebrush-Covered Landscapes Keeps Water on the Land for Ranchers and Wildlife

Thanks to  Justin Fritscher, Natural Resources Conservation Service, for bringing us this summary of research benefiting ranchers and wildlife.

Sage grouse are the iconic species of the West’s sagebrush sea. Photo by Tim Griffiths, NRCS.

Removing invading conifer trees improves the health of sagebrush ecosystems, providing better habitat for wildlife and better forage for livestock. And now, new science shows these efforts may also help improve late-season water availability, which is crucial for ecosystems in the arid West.

According to the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI)’s newest Science to Solutions report – which summarized research from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) – a sagebrush-dominated watershed holds water in snow drifts an average of nine days longer than one dominated by juniper trees.

Why is holding snow important for rangelands?

In the West, most precipitation comes in the form of snow. Having snow on the landscape longer gives water more time to slowly seep into the ground, providing more water in the soil at critical times for plants, sustaining wet meadow areas, and increasing late-season streamflow.

ARS researchers compared snow and streamflow data from sagebrush- versus juniper-dominated watersheds over the span of six years in the Owyhee Mountains of southwestern Idaho. Their goal was to better understand how juniper affects water availability. Working with physical data from four weather stations in the mountains, the researchers used iSnoball to model and estimate the amount of snow accumulated and how fast it melted in both juniper and sagebrush landscapes.

Stands of conifers evenly distributed snow compared with drifting snow in a treeless sagebrush landscape. Photos courtesy of the Agricultural Research Service.

Why does snow melt slower in sagebrush?

A wide-open sagebrush landscape has higher wind speeds, causing snow to pile up deeper in different areas. This uneven distribution causes snow to melt at different rates and, in some areas, hold water for longer periods of time.

What are the benefits of snow in sagebrush?

Wet meadows are important for sage grouse in late summer. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Roberts.

Since parts of the sagebrush landscape hold water longer, the soil has more water available later in the season to grow “green groceries” – succulent grasses and wildflowers that make for high quality habitat and grazing lands. This ARS research also shows that snow-covered, sagebrush-dominated watersheds are better at turning limited precipitation into streamflow. Timing of snowmelt influences riparian and wet meadow areas that are critical for many species, including sage grouse, as the arid sagebrush ecosystem dries up during the summer.

What are we doing to help?

Over the last 150 years, the amount of conifers in the sagebrush sea has increased by up to 625% because of a combination of factors. This encroachment by junipers and other species has been detrimental to the ecosystem.

Through SGI, a partnership led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), ranchers and conservation partners are expanding sagebrush habitat by strategically removing conifers to preserve native grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs. This keeps the sagebrush sea intact and viable for wildlife and ranching operations. Research now confirms conifer removal benefits sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent species. Plus, it makes rangelands more resilient to wildfire and more resistant to invasive weeds.

Conifer expansion is one of the five primary threats targeted by the agency’s Sage Grouse Initiative 2.0 investment strategy, which strategically directs conservation efforts where the returns on investment are highest.

Download the Science to Solutions Report here.

Want to learn more?

Learn more about these findings by downloading the Science to Solutions report. This report is part of the Science to Solutions series offered through NRCS, SGI and the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.

If you’d like to look at where sage grouse habitat is located, where areas of conifer encroachment are, and other information useful for working on improving habitat and rangeland, you can also check out this mapping tool. Clicking on each bar, brings up a toggle button so that you can turn that layer of the map on or off.

Here’s an example of the map with the Tree Canopy Cover, Sage Grouse Priority Areas for Conservation and Sage Grouse Management Zone layers toggled on. The map is an especially useful tool for working with offices that have access to GIS experienced staff.



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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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