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Big Changes in The Great Basin

Big Changes in The Great Basin

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ISSUE 3 - JUNE 2008

JFSP-funded researchers are exploring the ecological functioning of sagebrush-steppe communities in the Great Basin and other places in the dry Intermountain West. Their work is helping managers effectively use tools such as tree mastication and prescribed fire to help these communities become more resilient in the face of invasive weeds. Other research is finding ways to reestablish native vegetation on sites where weedy invaders have pushed the community past the point where it can recover on its own.
ISSUE 3 - JUNE 2008

JFSP-funded researchers are exploring the ecological functioning of sagebrush-steppe communities in the Great Basin and other places in the dry Intermountain West. Their work is helping managers effectively use tools such as tree mastication and prescribed fire to help these communities become more resilient in the face of invasive weeds. Other research is finding ways to reestablish native vegetation on sites where weedy invaders have pushed the community past the point where it can recover on its own.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Joint Fire Science Program on Nov 01, 2012
Copyright:Public Domain

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07/08/2013

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Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 3 June 2008
B chas  h ga Bas
iSSue 3 June 2008
 JFSP-funded researchers are exploring the ecological functioningof sagebrush-steppe communities in the Great Basinand other places in the dry Intermountain West.Their work is helping managers effectively use tools such as tree mastication
and prescribed fre to help these communities
become more resilient in the face of invasive weeds.
Other research is fnding ways to reestablish native vegetation on sites
where weedy invaders have pushed the community past the point where it can recover on its own.
 
2
Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 3 June 2008
When it comes to endangered ecosystems, thearid Intermountain West has more than its share. Themost urgent problem is invasive plants, both nativeand exotic, that are muscling into lands formerlydominated by native shrubs and grasses. In particular,
cheatgrass, in combination with wildres and other
disturbances, is turning formerly diverse sagebrush
communities into highly ammable monocultures.
The resulting disruption of the plant communities isexposing the rangelands of the Great Basin and otherarid and semi-arid western lands to more frequent and
more extensive wildres.
A warming climate is making matters worseby favoring the invading plants and by alteringthe amount and timing of the region’s preciousprecipitation. As a result, water availability, alwaysuncertain from year to year, is becoming even lesspredictable. Finally, all this is happening as a humanpopulation boom is putting pressure on an ecosystemthat is on the edge at the best of times.
The proliferation of invasive weeds signies a
profound environmental change in the Great Basin andacross the Intermountain West. Like the fruiting bodiesof a fungus whose biomass is mostly underground, theweeds are the most visible thread in a complex tangleof issues that signify the unraveling of an ecosystem:impaired watershed function, decreased biodiversity,degraded habitat for sensitive wildlife, diminishedforage for both cattle and wild herbivores, and more-intense outbreaks of insects and diseases.When human aspects are considered, the problemsextend to drinking-water shortages, potentially
explosive conicts over water rights, economic losses
to ranching and farming communities, degraded
recreational areas, wildre risks to homes and
communities, impaired air quality, and spiraling costs
of re suppression.
“Sometimes I lie awake thinking about this,” saysAden Seidlitz, chief of the Bureauof Land Management’s (BLM’s)
re planning and fuels management
division. He is headquartered in Boise,at the edge of the Great Basin, one of the fastest-growing metro areas in thenation. “It really hit home last summer
with the big res,” Seidlitz says. “It
appalls me that thousands of acres of good sagebrush land can just burn up.”
Last summer’s Murphy Complex re in Idaho and
Nevada, which burned 1,015 square miles, was the
biggest rangeland re in United States history. TheMilford Flat re, which burned 567 square miles, wasthe largest re Utah had ever seen.In all, about 2.7 million acres in the Great Basinburned in 2007, according to Mike Pellant, coordinator
of the BLM’s Great Basin Restoration Initiative. Since
1990, about 16.2 million acres have burned—an area
larger than the state of West Virginia and about 12percent of the Great Basin’s land area. About one-eighth of those acres burned more than once within
that period, says Pellant. Many scientists are saying
a warming climate, coupled with increased plantproduction that may come with increased atmosphericcarbon dioxide, will bring bigger and more frequent
res.
The Great Basin isa large arid and semi-arid area between theRocky Mountains andthe Sierra Nevada-Cascade range. Itcovers nearly 211,000square miles, an area
almost four-fths the
size of Texas. It takesin most of Nevada,
about half of Utah and
Idaho, the southeasternquarter of Oregon, andthe sliver of Californialying east of the SierraNevada.Its topography consists of mountains and lowlands
and everything in between—a pattern known as basin
and range. Moisture is sparse; over half the landin the Great Basin receives less than 12 inches of 
precipitation a year. Precipitation falls
as winter snow, which provides waterfor rivers, streams, and reservoirsduring spring and summer, andalso as occasional rains from Maythrough September. The amount of precipitation varies widely from season
to season—a couple of wet years can
be followed by a multi-year drought.The native vegetation of the GreatBasin is arrayed in a complex mosaic
The Great Basin takes in parts
of ve states. Map by KurtFesenmyer.
The most urgent  problem is invasive plants…that aremuscling into landsformerly dominated by native shrubsand grasses.
 
3
Fire Science DigeSt iSSue 3 June 2008
Forbs include aster, lupine, penstemon, lomatium,
buckwheat, balsamroot, and hawskbeard—some of which produce a dazzling array of owers in moist
springs. Beneath the understory is often a crust of lichens, mosses, algae, and other small organisms thatcovers and stabilizes the soil surface.In its northerly reaches, the sagebrush steppeis moister and has more understory grass. In thesagebrush semi-desert that occupies lower-elevationand more southerly areas, conditions are drier and theunderstory vegetation sparser.Before European-American pioneers arrived in the1800s, the sagebrush-steppe vegetation communitieshad adapted to their challenging and changing climateover thousands of years. The deep-rooted sagebrushand other shrubs pull water from varying depths in thesoil, and they anchor the soil and inhibit erosion. Thetough bunchgrasses can withstand extended drought aswell.The sagebrush steppe is home to a rich diversity of wildlife, from big game, including elk and mule deer,to smaller mammals, such as pygmyrabbits, many bird species includingthe sage-grouse, and severalspecies of reptiles and amphibians.
Historically, re occurred about
every 30 to 110 years. It occurred
less frequently (every 60–200 years)
in the pinyon-juniper zone in thesouthern reaches of the Great Basin
and more frequently (every 8–20
years) in the more mesic western
across the rugged landscape. Plant communities
are keyed to elevation, although there is muchintermixing of communities at the edges. The highestslopes and ridges feature alpine meadows and forestsdominated by pines. Intermixed with these forestsin moister environments are groves of aspen, one of the few broad-leaved trees to be found in the West’sintermountain forests. Slightly lower down aremountain big sagebrush communities and associatedpinyon pine and juniper woodlands.The lowest-lying vegetated lands in the GreatBasin are salt-desert shrublands. These are sparselyvegetated desert areas dominated by woody plantssuch as bud sage, shadscale, rabbitbrush, greasewood,and winterfat; and grasses such as Indian ricegrass andbottlebrush squirreltail. Globemallows are among thediverse native forbs. Many basins have barren playasat their valley bottoms.Between the salt-desert shrublands and thehigher-elevation shrublands and woodlands lies awide band of vegetation known assagebrush steppe. Its overstory isa shrub community dominated by
sagebrush—more than 20 speciesand varieties—together with an
understory of native perennialgrasses and forbs, with speciesvarying according to latitude andelevation. The grasses includewheatgrass, ricegrass, needlegrass,bluegrass, fescue, and squirreltail.
More than 20 species and varieties of sagebrush dominate theGreat Basin’s sagebrush steppe lands.The understory of intact sagebrush steppe contains native bunch
-
grasses, forbs, and sometimes a crust of lichens on the soil.
…the sagebrush-steppevegetation communitieshad adapted to their challenging and changing climateover thousandsof years.

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