New resource sheds light on tree encroachment on sagebrush ecosystems

Extensive studies show that native conifers, such as juniper and jack pine, are increasing their footprint on the landscape at an unprecedented rate over the past 150 years, especially in places like the Great Basin, where 1.1 million acres have become scrubland. or converting grasslands into forests from 2000. Rapid conversion of scrubland and grassland ecosystems to woodlands, loss of rare wildlife and wildlife habitat, reduced water availability and increased runoff and erosion, less land for livestock grazing, etc. has undesirable effects, including fuel loading for forest fires.

A new website jointly developed by the PJ (pinyon-juniper) Safety Education Project sheds light on the issue. The site is also a resource for those trying to manage this threat, particularly in the Great Basin, where pine and juniper trees have taken over sagebrush ecosystems and contributed to the decline of endangered species like sagebrush.

“The whole purpose of this project is to provide science-based information about the ecology and impacts of the problem, as well as the collaborative work being done to address it,” said Christina Restaino, a natural resources specialist at the University of Nevada. , the organization leading the project. “The website is intended to help people understand the problem and serve as an information clearinghouse to assist land managers, professionals and agencies throughout the West in a collaborative effort.”

Restaino, who is also an associate professor in the university’s College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, said encroachment of trees is one of the top three threats to sagebrush ecosystems in a new report from the US Geological Survey and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. – the other two are invasive species and land development.

The website, launched today, includes sections explaining the ecology of how and where conversion occurs, as well as sections describing the effects of grassland conversion to woodland. The Resilience in Action section shows projects being implemented in the West to manage the problem. Finally, there is an impressive “View Science” section where online viewers can search a database of over 400 peer-reviewed articles on an interactive map for information on the issue by topic, subject, keyword, or year.

The project partners worked for two years to create the website, immersed in research; conducting multiple stakeholder work sessions; work with web designers to create an organized, easy-to-navigate site; and working with a technical illustrator to provide clear, accessible graphics for the site. Project partners include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife partnership, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Intermountain West Joint Venture’s Sagebrush Plateau Conservation Partnership.

“Communicating why more trees everywhere isn’t always good is a real challenge for land managers working to protect non-forest lands,” said Jeremy Maestas, part of the task force and sage ecosystem specialist at USDA-NRCS. “With the expansion, we were able to create a website that helps a wider audience understand the science behind the problem.”

In addition to the devastating impact on sage-dependent wildlife, Maestas points out, the encroachment also has economic impacts.

“In the Intermountain West, 90% of trees have occurred in grasslands, a habitat type already halved due to various threats. Species such as sage, found nowhere else in the world, will leave breeding grounds when there are only a few trees per hectare. Damaged trees also absorb valuable soil moisture needed in arid lands to grow other native grasses and wildflowers, which means less food and cover not only for wildlife, but also for the livestock that sustain the agricultural economy in the West.”

Mandi Hirsch, co-conservation specialist for sagebrush at the Intermountain West Joint Venture and leader of the Sagebrush Plateau Conservation Partnership initiative, is also part of the project’s task force. He knows firsthand how the encroachment of trees into grazing land will affect farmers. Hirsch is a farmer by heart and by trade, and is still working to preserve and sustain the Western grasslands.

“Conserving a unique species like sagebrush is critical, but it’s only part of the picture when managing natural resources at a landscape scale. What many people don’t realize is that encroachment has many other potentially devastating effects, including jeopardizing the livelihoods of our farmers and their ability to produce food. I think this website can help people understand this and all the other effects of this harassment. And I think it’s going to be a great ongoing resource for those who are trying to do something about it.”

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