Identifying Historical Drivers of Vegetation Change to Inform Future Management of Federal Lands in the Northern Great Basin

    Principal Investigator

  • Christopher Soulard, USGS Western Geographic Science Center,
  • Northwest CASC
In Progress

The sagebrush rangelands of the Great Basin provide crucial habitat for a diversity of wildlife, including the pronghorn and the greater sage-grouse. These water-limited, highly-managed ecosystems have already been degraded by wildfires, the expansion of invasive grasses, and livestock grazing, and are expected to experience additional stress as climate and land use conditions change. Effective management of sagebrush ecosystems in the future will require the ability to understand and predict these future changes.

To address this need, researchers will identify historical rates and causes of vegetation change in shrubland ecosystems, then use this information to develop potential future climate and land use scenarios for three federally-managed lands in the region – Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (USFWS), Beaty Butte Herd Management Area (BLM), and Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge (USFWS). Located near the Oregon-Nevada border, these units have a unique land use history and differing management practices. Through interagency partnerships, researchers will merge USGS land cover and fire data; USFWS and BLM data on grazing allotments, feral horse populations, and land treatments; and historical temperature and precipitation records to characterize the rates and causes of vegetation change. Once these relationships have been established, researchers will project future changes in vegetation within these three units through 2050. Maps will be produced that show where change may occur, where vegetation is more likely to degrade under continued stress, and where vegetation may recover more quickly.

BLM and USFWS managers can use this information to understand how critical vegetation types such as sagebrush might change over time, and what these changes will mean for species that depend on sagebrush for habitat. By presenting the impacts of climate and land use change on vegetation, land managers can customize adaptation plans to meet mission specific criteria including vegetation rehabilitation and habitat conservation. The results also hold the potential to identify best management practices and guide climate adaptation efforts across all sagebrush ecosystems in the West.

Data and Products