• A Synopsis of Short-Term Response to Alternative Restoration Treatments in Sagebrush-Steppe: The SageSTEP Project

      McIver, J.; Brunson, M.; Bunting, S.; Chambers, J.; Doescher, P.; Grace, J.; Hulet, A.; Johnson, D.; Knick, S.; Miller, R.; et al. (Society for Range Management, 2014-09)
      The Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP) is an integrated long-term study that evaluates ecological effects of alternative treatments designed to reduce woody fuels and to stimulate the herbaceous understory of sagebrush steppe communities of the Intermountain West. This synopsis summarizes results through 3 yr posttreatment. Woody vegetation reduction by prescribed fire, mechanical treatments, or herbicides initiated a cascade of effects, beginning with increased availability of nitrogen and soil water, followed by increased growth of herbaceous vegetation. Response of butterflies and magnitudes of runoff and erosion closely followed herbaceous vegetation recovery. Effects on shrubs, biological soil crust, tree cover, surface woody fuel loads, and sagebrush-obligate bird communities will take longer to be fully expressed. In the short term, cool wet sites were more resilient than warm dry sites, and resistance was mostly dependent on pretreatment herbaceous cover. At least 10 yr of posttreatment time will likely be necessary to determine outcomes for most sites. Mechanical treatments did not serve as surrogates for prescribed fire in how each influenced the fuel bed, the soil, erosion, and sage-obligate bird communities. Woody vegetation reduction by any means resulted in increased availability of soil water, higher herbaceous cover, and greater butterfly numbers. We identified several trade-offs (desirable outcomes for some variables, undesirable for others), involving most components of the study system. Trade-offs are inevitable when managing complex natural systems, and they underline the importance of asking questions about the whole system when developing management objectives. Substantial spatial and temporal heterogeneity in sagebrush steppe ecosystems emphasizes the point that there will rarely be a "recipe" for choosing management actions on any specific area. Use of a consistent evaluation process linked to monitoring may be the best chance managers have for arresting woodland expansion and cheatgrass invasion that may accelerate in a future warming climate. © 2014 The Society for Range Management.
    • Piñon-Juniper Reduction Increases Soil Water Availability of the Resource Growth Pool

      Roundy, B. A.; Young, K.; Cline, N.; Hulet, A.; Miller, R. F.; Tausch, R. J.; Chambers, J. C.; Rau, B. (Society for Range Management, 2014-09)
      Managers reduce piñon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) trees that are encroaching on sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) communities to lower fuel loads and increase cover of desirable understory species. All plant species in these communities depend on soil water held at >-1.5 MPa matric potential in the upper 0.3 m of soil for nutrient diffusion to roots and major growth in spring (resource growth pool). We measured soil water matric potentials and temperatures using gypsum blocks and thermocouples buried at 0.01-0.3 m on tree, shrub, and interspace microsites to characterize the seasonal soil climate of 13 tree-encroached sites across the Great Basin. We also tested the effects of initial tree infilling phase and tree control treatments of prescribed fire, tree cutting, and tree shredding on time of available water and soil temperature of the resource growth pool on nine sites. Both prescribed fire and mechanical tree reduction similarly increased the time that soil water was available (matric potential >-1.5 MPa) in spring, but this increase was greatest (up to 26 d) when treatments were applied at high tree dominance. As plant cover increased with time since treatment, the additional time of available water decreased. However, even in the fourth year after treatment, available water was 8.6 d and 18 d longer on treatments applied at mid and high tree dominance compared to untreated plots, indicating ongoing water availability to support continued increases in residual plants or annual invaders in the future. To increase resistance to invasive annual grasses managers should either treat at lower or mid tree dominance when there is still high cover of desirable residual vegetation or seed desirable species to use increased resources from tree reduction. This strategy is especially critical on warmer sites, which have high climate suitability to invasive species such as cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.). © 2014 The Society for Range Management.
    • Response of Conifer-Encroached Shrublands in the Great Basin to Prescribed Fire and Mechanical Treatments

      Miller, R. F.; Ratchford, J.; Roundy, B. A.; Tausch, R. J.; Hulet, A.; Chambers, J. (Society for Range Management, 2014-09)
      In response to the recent expansion of piñon and juniper woodlands into sagebrush-steppe communities in the northern Great Basin region, numerous conifer-removal projects have been implemented, primarily to release understory vegetation at sites having a wide range of environmental conditions. Responses to these treatments have varied from successful restoration of native plant communities to complete conversion to nonnative invasive species. To evaluate the general response of understory vegetation to tree canopy removal in conifer-encroached shrublands, we set up a region-wide study that measured treatment-induced changes in understory cover and density. Eleven study sites located across four states in the Great Basin were established as statistical replicate blocks, each containing fire, mechanical, and control treatments. Different cover groups were measured prior to and during the first 3 yr following treatment. There was a general pattern of response across the wide range of site conditions. There was an immediate increase in bare ground and decrease in tall perennial grasses following the fire treatment, but both recovered by the second or third growing season after treatment. Tall perennial grass cover increased in the mechanical treatment in the second and third year, and in the fire treatment cover was higher than the control by year 3. Nonnative grass and forb cover did not increase in the fire and mechanical treatments in the first year but increased in the second and third years. Perennial forb cover increased in both the fire and mechanical treatments. The recovery of herbaceous cover groups was from increased growth of residual vegetation, not density. Sagebrush declined in the fire treatment, but seedling density increased in both treatments. Biological soil crust declined in the fire treatment, with no indications of recovery. Differences in plant response that occurred between mechanical and fire treatments should be considered when selecting management options. © 2014 The Society for Range Management.
    • Understory Cover Responses to Piñon-Juniper Treatments Across Tree Dominance Gradients in the Great Basin

      Roundy, B. A.; Miller, R. F.; Tausch, R. J.; Young, K.; Hulet, A.; Rau, B.; Jessop, B.; Chambers, J. C.; Eggett, D. (Society for Range Management, 2014-09)
      Piñon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) trees are reduced to restore native vegetation and avoid severe fires where they have expanded into sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.) communities. However, what phase of tree infilling should treatments target to retain desirable understory cover and avoid weed dominance? Prescribed fire and tree felling were applied to 8-20-ha treatment plots at 11 sites across the Great Basin with a tree-shredding treatment also applied to four Utah sites. Treatments were applied across a tree infilling gradient as quantified by a covariate tree dominance index (TDI=tree cover/tree+shrub+tall perennial grass cover). Mixed model analysis of covariance indicated that treatment×covariate interactions were significant (P<0.05) for most vegetation functional groups 3 yr after treatment. Shrub cover was most reduced with fire at any TDI or by mechanical treatment after infilling resulted in over 50% shrub cover loss (TDI>0.4). Fire increased cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) cover by an average of 4.2% for all values of TDI. Cutting or shredding trees generally produced similar responses and increased total perennial herbaceous and cheatgrass cover by an average of 10.2% and 3.8%, at TDIs ≥0.35 and ≥0.45. Cheatgrass cover estimated across the region was <6% after treatment, but two warmer sites had high cheatgrass cover before (19.2% and 27.2%) and after tree reduction (26.6% and 50.4%). Fuel control treatments are viable management options for increasing understory cover across a range of sites and tree cover gradients, but should be accompanied by revegetation on warmer sites with depleted understories where cheatgrass is highly adapted. Shrub and perennial herbaceous cover can be maintained by mechanically treating at lower TDI. Perennial herbaceous cover is key for avoiding biotic and abiotic thresholds in this system through resisting weed dominance and erosion. © 2014 The Society for Range Management.
    • Utilizing National Agriculture Imagery Program Data to Estimate Tree Cover and Biomass of Piñon and Juniper Woodlands

      Hulet, A.; Roundy, B. A.; Petersen, S. L.; Bunting, S. C.; Jensen, R. R.; Roundy, D. B. (Society for Range Management, 2014-09)
      With the encroachment of piñon (Pinus ssp.) and juniper (Juniperus ssp.) woodlands onto sagebrush steppe rangelands, there is an increasing interest in rapid, accurate, and inexpensive quantification methods to estimate tree canopy cover and aboveground biomass. The objectives of this study were 1) to evaluate the relationship and agreement of piñon and juniper (P-J) canopy cover estimates, using object-based image analysis (OBIA) techniques and National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP, 1-m pixel resolution) imagery with ground measurements, and 2) to investigate the relationship between remotely-sensed P-J canopy cover and ground-measured aboveground biomass. For the OBIA, we used eCognition® Developer 8.8 software to extract tree canopy cover from NAIP imagery across 12 P-J woodlands within the Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP) network. The P-J woodlands were categorized based on the dominant tree species found at the individual sites for the analysis (western juniper, Utah juniper, and mixed P-J community). Following tree canopy cover extractions, relationships were assessed between remotely-sensed canopy cover and ground-measured aboveground biomass. Our OBIA estimates for P-J canopy cover were highly correlated with ground-measured tree canopy cover (averaged across all regions r=0.92). However, differences between methods occurred for western and Utah juniper sites (P<0.05), and were more prominent where tree canopy cover was >40%. There were high degrees of correlation between predicted aboveground biomass estimates with the use of remotely-sensed tree canopy cover and ground-measured aboveground biomass (averaged across all regions r=0.89). Our results suggest that OBIA methods combined with NAIP imagery can provide land managers with quantitative data that can be used to evaluate P-J woodland cover and aboveground biomass rapidly, on broad scales. Although some accuracy and precision may be lost when utilizing aerial imagery to identify P-J canopy cover and aboveground biomass, it is a reasonable alternative to ground monitoring and inventory practices. © 2014 The Society for Range Management.