Removing woody plants helps sage grouse

Rangeland Ecology and Management

The journal Rangeland Ecology & Management just published a special issue on reducing woodland expansion. Professor Dave Naugle and UM faculty share their insights on how to protect sage-grouse and lesser prairie chicken by maintaining healthy rangelands in a series of articles in the issue. 

Species like juniper, pinyon pine, red cedar and mesquite are encroaching onto these landscapes to the detriment of sage grouse and lesser prairie-chickens, as well as hundreds of other species that depend on healthy, intact rangelands — including people.

Fifteen research papers describe the impacts of the woody invasion of western rangelands. The research also evaluates using grouse species — the greater sage-grouse in sagebrush country and the lesser prairie-chicken in the southern Great Plains — as a focal species for habitat restoration.

For the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, removing these encroaching woody plants has long been a conservation priority through its Sage Grouse Initiative and Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative. SGI has partnered with hundreds of ranchers and across fences on public lands to remove 457,000 acres of conifer since 2010, restoring rangelands and core habitat for sage grouse. 

Fires once kept native conifers from expanding into sagebrush range. In the last 150 years, junipers and pinyon pines have marched across rangeland, drying up precious streams and threatening sage grouse. In the Great Basin, conifers have expanded their range by 600 percent, overtaking native bunchgrasses and sagebrush that sustain agricultural operations as well as 350 species. 

Conifers crowd out native perennial grasses and forbs, decreasing the productivity and richness of the range. If unchecked, the spread of conifers can reduce the availability of water, food, and cover for grouse and livestock. Plus, woodland expansion increases the risk of soil erosion, invasive weeds, and high-intensity wildfires.

The new issue of REM presents cutting-edge research that will help managers and landowners fine-tune practices that address woody encroachment in both western sagebrush and southern Great Plains habitats, benefiting the wildlife and agricultural producers who depend on these rangelands. 

Papers with UM contributors highlighted below (UM authors in bold):