Stakes higher for managing wildfires in sagebrush country

Tuesday , November 03, 2015 - 12:58 PM

When there’s talk about wildfire threats in the West, it’s forgivable for first thinking of forests. But it’s fires in Great Basin’s sagebrush steppes that have many land managers stressed.

Like the tree-covered mountains, human mismanagement and meddling have created a sagebrush range full of invasive species, heavy fuel loads and damaged ecosystems. That landscape is prone to big burns — with big costs — to Western wildlife and the region’s cattle-raising industry.

“Times are changing … fires are changing,” Bureau of Land Management ecologist Mike Pellant said during a presentation at the 2015 Restoration and Fire in the Interior West conference.

Hosted by Utah State University in Logan, the conference was part of an annual “Restoring the West” series. Of the various wildfire and land management presentations at the conference, nearly a third focused on sagebrush and rangeland fire.


Cheatgrass, an invasive plant that moved West in contaminated grain seeds from Eurasia, is a tenacious and prolific weed. It grows during the winter, sucks all the moisture and nutrients from the soil by spring and dries out by early summer, just in time for fire season.

A warming climate also means native pinyon-juniper forests have encroached on sagebrush ecosystems, elevating the risk of hot, fast-moving crown fires.

Between 1990 and 2008, more than 21 percent of the Great Basin burned at least once, according to the BLM. The largest wildfire in Utah history, at Milford Flat in 2007, is part of that tally. It burned over 360,000 acres.

That same year, Pellant recalled surveying the burn area of Idaho’s 650,000-acre Murphy Complex Fire.

“As I far as I could see it was black,” he said. “I’ve worked for BLM for 40 years now, and it was probably the most memorable day in my career in terms of, ‘something's got to change.’”


Land managers have a few tools in managing wildfires. They can conduct controlled burns, but there’s a limited seasonal window when that’s safe and it doesn’t generally carry much public support. Mechanical harvesting has proven effective throughout Utah’s West Desert but the equipment is expensive and sometimes limited by terrain and the extent of fuels in the landscape.

But the idea of another fire tool is growing in popularity. On Great Basin rangeland, agencies are looking at targeted grazing to help reduce fine fuels, especially from cheatgrass. 

Troy Forrest, Grazing Improvement Program manager for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said he’s already seen grazing from cows, goats and sheep work as an effective wildfire fuel break. And using animals can, at times, be more cost-effective tools for reducing fire risk than fuel removal by machines.

“Livestock turn invasive fire species into sellable commodity,” he said.

Forrest said he’s interested in using his program to support grazing as a fire management tool. Grazing could help keep the land productive, demonstrate good land stewardship and ensure a future for livestock grazing.

“This is an important way of life for many people and it supports many of our rural communities,” he said.

But developing grazing plans for fire control isn’t as easy as putting cows out to roam.

Grazing too soon on a post-fire site — the BLM recommends a two-year wait — can hamper reseeding efforts and clear the way for more invasive plants. Grazing during a drought year can further thwart recovery.

With most fires, land managers have to be flexible, evaluating sites on a case-by-case basis. Federal agencies can partner with scientific researchers on the range’s response to grazing and revegetation efforts.

“Monitoring also allows for adaptive management, and this is essential — figuring out if what you’re doing is working and if it isn’t, changing that,” said Jeffery Gicklhorn, a research assistant at the University of Nevada Reno. “However ... the effects of post-fire grazing may not be detectable in the first few years, so it’s very important to continuing monitoring.”


Much of the interest in fire prevention partnerships on the sagebrush steppes was sparked by the Greater Sage-Grouse. The birds have lost almost half of their historic habitat, but it skirted an endangered species listing earlier this fall. The goal is to preserve what sagebrush habitat is left.

A DOI “implementation plan” (link to PDF) released earlier this year aims to provide federal agencies with a roadmap for their own public lands and for collaborating with private landowners. Among other things, it will help identify high-priority Great Basin sites at risk from fuel loads and hot, dry conditions and develop strategies for removing invasive overgrowth. It provides guidance to manage lands post-burn, too.

“Suppression is the most important thing once the fire starts,” Pellant said. “(But) as part of this emphasis on sage-grouse, one of the recommendations that’s really been put forward is we need more time to do rehabilitation after a fire.”

The possibility of an endangered sage-grouse listing threatened economic activity in much of the Great Basin, from grazing and oil extraction to development for a growing population. But it had a positive result: It brought federal, state and private interests together to collaborate on sage-grouse protection strategies. Those group efforts can’t just stop with the birds. More partnerships will be necessary to protect the entire region’s sagebrush ecosystem.

“Collaboration is messy. It takes forever. People have to commit to it, but there is no other alternative,” said John Freemuth, a professor of public policy at Boise State University. “But it does create those sorts of personal relationships that used to govern American politics ... before it turned into whatever it’s turned into now.”

Contact reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or Follow her on or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.

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