The West has experienced record fire activity over the past 15 years, in terms of size, frequency, and intensity. In 1999, for example, nearly 1.7 million acres of the Great Basin burned in just a week. In 2006, ten million acres across the West burned and the next year, more than nine million acres burned.
Much of this fire activity occurred outside of the forested areas in the dry sagebrush plains parched by years of drought and dominated by the highly flammable, invasive cheatgrass. Often driven by fierce winds, these rangeland fires raced across the low growing vegetation, burning hundreds to thousands of square miles before they could be contained.
Historically, sagebrush survived less intense wildfires that occurred infrequently, and the native grasses re-sprouted. But fire cycles have intensified and native plant communities cannot compete with cheatgrass, which spreads rapidly after a fire. Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers wildland fire one of the most serious threats to sage-grouse habitat.
Sage-Grouse Habitat: A BLM Priority
The BLM manages much of the nation's sagebrush habitat vital to sage-grouse and other species that depend on it. Sagebrush habitat is a priority in fire management. While the agency continues to promote human safety as its number-one priority, defending key sage-grouse habitat when suppressing rangeland fires is high on the list. In July 2010, the BLM spelled out its sage-grouse/fire policy in an Instruction Memorandum that outlines fire and fuels management procedures specifically aimed at protecting sage-grouse habitat, instructing fire managers to use habitat maps and a set of “best management practices” in making decisions about managing wildfires.
Fire Management Planning
Each BLM district office operates from an established fire management plan, updated each year, which lays out fire suppression priorities tailored to the lands being managed. Before fire season even begins, fire managers work closely with various resource specialists to build detailed maps of the district, including updated maps of currently occupied sage-grouse habitat. This information is loaded into GPS equipment, computers and other devices used to track fires and fire operations. Next, the drills start, as field managers and resource advisors act out various scenarios to help them develop a higher comfort level with making decisions on dispatching limited fire crews and equipment to the highest priority areas.
“With maps of priority sage-grouse habitat and an understanding of the likely path of summer lightning tracks, BLM managers can preposition equipment where it can do the most good in the event of a lightening caused fire. The goal is to protect the intact sagebrush habitat areas,” says Andy Delmas, fire management officer for the BLM’s Boise, Idaho, District. The District averages about 100 fires a year, yet still contains significant healthy sagebrush communities.
Similar priorities exist in every other BLM district containing healthy sagebrush habitat. Managers know that it is much easier to protect high quality habitat than it is to restore it after a fire. In BLM-Wyoming’s Wind River/Bighorn Basin District, for example, during periods of critical fire danger, fire suppression resources are prepositioned to enhance the BLM’s ability to conduct initial attack and quickly control wildfires in sage-grouse habitat. During the 2010 fire season, the District stationed a type 4 “heavy” engine in Worland. The extra water, firefighters and increased maneuverability in rough terrain greatly enhanced the District’s ability to suppress sagebrush fires. The District also supported a single engine air tanker (SEAT) to provide a faster response, helping to further reduce the loss of sage-grouse habitat.
In Nevada, the BLM’s Winnemucca District Office and Nevada Department of Wildlife are implementing jointly funded fuel break projects in two of the most important and intact areas of sage-grouse habitats in the state -- the Santa Rosa and the Lone Willow Sage-Grouse Population Management Units. Fuel breaks involve removing flammable vegetation in a swath wide enough to contain a fire. The Lone Willow area contains some of the largest numbers of sage-grouse in northern Nevada. One of the greatest threats is wildfire followed by conversion to cheatgrass. The BLM and Nevada Department of Wildlife have created fuel breaks in strategic locations, treating nearly 4,000 acres. Herbicide is applied from the air to avoid surface disturbance. This is an important factor in discouraging invasive grasses like cheatgrass which would establish easily in disturbed areas.
Also in Nevada, the BLM’s Sierra Front Field Office of the Carson City District has treated 6,500 acres to protect important sage-grouse breeding, nesting and brood rearing sites within the sage-grouse Pine Nut Population Management Unit south and east of Carson City. Again, the Nevada Department of Wildlife assisted. And in the spring of 2010, seasonal fire crews hand thinned 800 acres on the western slopes of the Desatoya Mountains in Nevada’s Churchill County as part of the Big Den Fuels Project to reduce pinyon and juniper encroachment on 2,600 acres.
Approximately 2,500 acres have been treated to control trees and reduce the threat of wildfire near Mill Canyon. Project areas are located near sage-grouse leks. Another 1,100 acres have been treated in the Sunrise Pass and Big Meadow areas. A livestock grazing permit holder has signed a contract to remove an additional 215 acres of pinyon and juniper trees over the next two years through a program sponsored by the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and other wildlife species in the area depend upon large, open expanses of sagebrush plant communities.
The BLM has completed a number of hazardous fuels and restoration treatments to benefit sage-grouse in the Ely District of nevada as well.
Because cheatgrass can establish quickly after a fire, the BLM develops and implements emergency rehabilitation plans for stabilizing and restoring sage-grouse habitat as soon as possible.
Historically, the rangelands of the Big Desert sagebrush-steppe ecosystem within the BLM’s Idaho Falls District were dominated by expansive stands of big sagebrush and native grasses, making the habitat well suited for sage-grouse. Today, this area of eastern Idaho is threatened by a devastating wildfire cycle. In 2010, the Jefferson wildfire, fueled by high winds, burned more than 100,000 acres in less than 24 hours. The BLM wasted no time in responding, drill seeding 1,000 acres of native plants, aerial seeding 10,000 acres of sagebrush and planting 10,000 sagebrush plugs. Rows of fire resistant plants, or 'greenstrips’ were also planted to create additional fire breaks for the purpose of slowing the spread of future wildfires.
The BLM is also applying mechanical treatments, like rotomowing, to trim down fuel height and reduce the intensity of wildfire spread in sage-grouse habitat. Rotomowing along the sides of narrow rural roads effectively widens the fuel break. This treatment retains adequate cover for the birds while protecting existing sage-grouse habitat. It can also renew stagnant stands of sagebrush, allowing for the re-seeding of shrubs or grasses to produce more functional habitat. Since 1999, the BLM has restored or enhanced 479,000 acres of sage-grouse habitat within the Big Desert.
In the BLM’s Worland, Wyoming, Field Office, biologists are planting sagebrush seedlings to repopulate areas lost to wildfire and using aerial applications of herbicides to reduce cheatgrass invasions. The idea is to create a mosaic of different stages of vegetation across the landscape and to reduce concentrated flammable fuel loads in order to limit the intensity of wildfires.
A key element is the Seeds of Success program whose interns collected Wyoming big sagebrush seeds from the area. BLM then planted 120 acres of previously burned land with the sagebrush, with an average establishment success rate of 86 percent. More seedlings will be planted this autumn in cooperation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Moderate applications rates of a short action herbicide that only kills actively growing cheatgrass have been applied to 3,000 acres of land with success in inhibiting cheatgrass seedling establishment for three to four years. Another 4,500 acres will be treated in August with plans to treat an additional 50,000 acres over the next ten years in cooperation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Additional partners include the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust, the Big Horn Basin Sage-grouse Local Working Group, and various local ranches.