BLM’s Landscape Approach and Ecoregional Assessments

By Joe Tague

Since 2006, the BLM has been transitioning to a landscape management approach, recognizing the need to work across jurisdictions and beyond individual projects.  This approach has several components, but the initial step is to conduct ecoregional assessments. 

A photograph of the cover of 2009 Rapid Ecoregional Assessment for the Northern Basin and Range and Snake River Plain.
The Northern Basin and Range and Snake River Plain assessments were completed in 2009. (BLM).
My involvement in moving BLM toward a landscape approach began in September 2006 when Associate State Director Amy Lueders asked me to develop sagebrush restoration projects for Nevada, working in conjunction with BLM offices in Idaho and Oregon.  These projects were the beginning of the Healthy Lands Initiative.  Our project area encompassed parts of northern Nevada, southwestern Idaho, and southeastern Oregon, which became known as the tri-state area.  It was the only one of the six national emphasis areas originally selected for the Healthy Lands Initiative that crossed state boundaries. 

A governing board was established for the tri-state area.  The board initially consisted of BLM’s renewable resources branch chiefs for Idaho (Jon Foster), Nevada (me), and Oregon (Miles Brown), often referred to as the “three amigos.”  We expanded this group to include representatives from the three state wildlife agencies; the coordinator for BLM’s Great Basin Restoration Initiative, Mike Pellant; and BLM’s wildlife program leads, Elroy Masters, Paul Makela, and George Buckner.  We developed a process that included criteria for evaluating projects across the area and worked with the BLM’s Washington Office to fund them.

As this initiative moved forward, we tried to compete for a higher share of the funding for our projects.  In response to a suggestion from Jim Dryden, the Healthy Lands Initiative coordinator, we requested an ecoregional assessment of the tri-state area.  Previous restoration work had been done in the area, and BLM managers recognized that to understand the extent of the sagebrush habitat, the scale of threats or changes occurring on public lands, and the effectiveness of current management strategies, a larger, ecoregional assessment was needed.  It was agreed that the tri-state area would become a pilot for doing ecoregional assessments; it would be limited in scope and use existing information and therefore be done relatively quickly.  This first “rapid ecoregional assessment” was led by Bruce Durtsche of the National Operations Center.

The first step was to define the boundary of the assessment area.  The Washington Office and National Operations Center analyzed several potential ecoregional boundaries, including Bailey’s ecoregions, The Nature Conservancy’s terrestrial ecoregions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s ecoregions derived from Omernik’s common ecological communities, and others.  We adopted Omernik’s ecoregions, which fit with BLM’s management very well.  The assessment would cover the Northern Basin and Range and Snake River Plain Ecoregions.  The tri-state project area fell within these ecoregion boundaries.

This initial assessment would look at the impacts that wildfire and cheatgrass have had on native sagebrush and salt-desert scrub plant communities, sage-grouse habitat, and mule deer winter range.  It would also look at juniper encroachment into sagebrush communities.  The tri-state board expanded to include additional key BLM employees:  Verlin Smith from Utah; Kit Muller, Dan Lechefsky, and others from the Washington Office; and Travis Haby, Matt Bobo, and Frank Quaman from the National Operations Center.  “The Snake River Plain and Northern Basin and Range Rapid Ecoregional Assessment” was completed in 2009.  It is commonly referred to as the Northern Great Basin rapid ecoregional assessment.

Meanwhile, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009.  The BLM decided to conduct assessments of four ecoregions with some of the funding provided by the act:  the Central Basin and Range (Central Great Basin), Mojave Basin and Range, Sonoran Desert, and Colorado Plateau Ecoregions.  A national process for these assessments had yet to be determined; nevertheless, we had a short timeline to obligate the funds.

Working with Kit Muller, we met in Denver, Colorado, in July 2009 and outlined a process, based on experiences gained from the Northern Great Basin assessment and our vision of the Bureau’s landscape approach.  This was followed by a second meeting in Reno, Nevada, to refine the process.

The National Operations Center handled the contracting for these rapid ecoregional assessments; the contracts were awarded in June 2010, with final assessments due in 2012.  The assessments for the Central Great Basin and Mojave areas generated interest from other agencies, prompting increased participation in the effort. 

These projects continue beyond completion of the assessments.  The next step is to develop a way to use the information gathered from the assessments to implement management actions on the ground. 

These are exciting times for those of us working on the BLM’s landscape approach, and we believe this process could be a paradigm shift for the Bureau. 

Joe Tague is the branch chief for renewable resources and planning in BLM’s Nevada State Office.  Joe is also the assessment team leader for the Central Great Basin and Mojave rapid ecoregional assessments.  Prior to that, he was the associate district manager of the Lakeview District in Oregon.