OSU’s Extension Sagebrush Habitat Team is comprised of researchers and extension faculty whose mission is to advance research and outreach programs that promote healthy sagebrush ecosystems that are more resistant and resilient and can support multiple land uses, rural communities, and wildlife populations on the landscape.

The Oregon State University Sage-Steppe Habitat Team was created in 2016 to fill research and extension needs associated with threats to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem and sagebrush-obligate wildlife. We have initiated and continue work to address priorities set forth by our stakeholder advisory committee. To address the complex and persistent nature of landscape scale threats facing sagebrush ecosystems and wildlife, our research and outreach needs cohesive direction and longevity.  Oure team works in general themes related to our team’s mission, including: Sagebrush Ecosystem Management, Wildlife Conservation and Management, and related Trainings and Outreach. While the team has been successful in securing funds to initiate several extension and research projects, long term research projects are essential to account for the high inter-annual variability in sagebrush ecosystems. Listed below are the team’s current projects and a brief update and description of the work. Please contact us with any comments, questions or thoughts.

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Sagebrush Ecosystem and Management

Maintaining the Good

Due to the complex nature of the threats facing the sagebrush ecosystem, and our limited ability to restore degraded systems, we believe a top priority for conservation and research is to focus on how to “keep the good stuff good”. Maintaining areas of intact sagebrush rangeland (state A) provides the greatest benefit with the least amount of resources. Below are research projects focused on maintaining state A. To learn more about state A rangelands and Threat Based Land Management visit www.sageshare.org/.

Contemporary Grazing in Sagebrush Country

Grazing seasons of use effects on the sagebrush steppe ecosystem:

Extensive reduction and fragmentation of the sagebrush ecosystem has generated an intense focus on how remaining intact sagebrush habitats should be managed. Livestock grazing is the predominant land use in the sagebrush ecosystem but surprisingly, limited information is available for understanding the influence of the direct and indirect effects of common contemporary grazing practices on the  sagebrush ecosystem over both short and long time scales.

  • We are conducting a long-term replicated experiment focused on three common grazing regimes in the Great Basin: dormant season grazed, spring-defer rotationally grazed and grazing exclusion at a moderate utilization of bunchgrasses in 15-20 acre pastures.
  • Status: Currently in year four of a five plus year project, and have completed one year of pre-treatment data collection and, 3 years of treatment application and 2 years of post-treatment data collection.
  • Anticipated publications: Influences of Moderate Levels of Rotational and Winter Grazing on Subsequent Year’s Sagebrush Habitat Characteristics (2022); Sustainable Grazing Practices for Sagebrush Rangelands (2023)

Grazing and Wild Horses

Season Long Horse Grazing in Sage-Grouse Habitat: Fourteen of Oregon’s seventeen Horse Management Areas (HMAs) located in sagebrush rangelands overlap either partially or entirely with BLM’s preliminary priority sage-grouse habitat, with the core distinction indicating the highest quality grouse habitat. Currently there is a high degree of uncertainty regarding wild horse grazing impacts to grouse habitat and population metrics. Preserving these core habitat areas is a top conservation priority, and we need a science-based understanding of horse impacts if we wish to mitigate any potential negative effects to grouse habitat.

  • We have initiated a concentrated horse grazing study on private land
  • Status: We are using a case study approach to determine the impacts of season-long (8 months/year) horse grazing on
    • Sage-grouse nesting habitat structure and composition and
    • (potentially) behavioral interactions between nesting sage-grouse and grazing horses within active nesting habitat located near a water source.
    • Currently collecting several years of pre-treatment data before applying the season long horse grazing treatment

Developing Wildfire Management Tools

Developing Fine Fuels and Forage Management Decision Support Tools for Sagebrush Rangelands in the Northern Great Basin Pilot Project

Annual weather is a major driver of plant community dynamics and production, especially in water limited biomes such as the sagebrush steppe. In the northern Great Basin, annual variation in precipitation is enormous for any given site. Additionally, a large proportion of rangeland within the region is not currently representative of the biotic potential of ecological sites, but rather is comprised of vegetation states that have been degraded by conifer encroachment and invasive annual grasses. Vegetation that has been impacted by these threats potentially responds to variable precipitation inputs with differing forage production capacities and amounts and continuity of fine fuels.

  • Forage production and fine fuels characteristics depend on year and location
  • Appropriate techniques and practices for managing grazing and fine fuels (fire risk) vary over time with erratic weather inputs and over space with differences in soils and landscape position.
  • Collecting data on vegetation standing crop and production, plant functional group composition, and fine fuels (amount, continuity, and moisture) monitoring project at 20 Remote Automated Weather Station sites
  • Data collected will be used to develop adaptive decision support tools for predictive, spatially explicit identification of areas to target for fine fuels and fire risk reduction in the northern Great Basin.

Restoration

While preserving intact habitat provides the highest return on limited resources, preventing the degradation of habitats on the brink of persistent conversion to an undesired state is the next highest priority. These habitats still provide some measure of use for wildlife and ranchers, but are at high risk of being lost with a single disturbance event, such as fire.

Restoring habitats on the brink of persistent degradation

One of the highest priority management challenges is restoring perennial vegetation in habitats that still have sagebrush but lack a productive and resilient understory needed to resist invasion in annual grass prone areas of the ecosystem.  These areas often provide important connectivity between intact habitats and still potentially service certain habitat needs of sage-grouse and other sagebrush obligates.  However, these areas are also at the highest risk for a persistent conversion to exotic annual grassland following disturbance.  We also know the least about potential viable conservation measures for these degraded habitats. As such, we have implemented a study that is evaluating the efficacy of various pre-fire and post-fire conservation measures for restoring a perennial understory in degraded sagebrush habitats. We have applied treatments and collected one year of post-treatment monitoring.  Will be conducting a second year of post-treatment monitoring during summer 2020.   

Sagebrush Wildlife Conservation and Management

Wildlife and Grazing: Birds and Herds

Grazing Season of Use Effects on Sagebrush-obligate Songbirds: Population declines of sagebrush-obligate birds, including Brewer’s sparrow, greater sage-grouse, sagebrush sparrow, and sage thrasher, have occurred since the 1950’s in the Great Basin. While not a primary threat, livestock grazing is the predominant use of sagebrush habitat. However, there is no published literature from a rigorous comparison of direct or indirect effects of livestock grazing on sage-grouse or sagebrush-obligate songbirds. 

  • Status: We are currently analyzing and drafting publications for the short-term effects of grazing regimes on nest density and nest success of sagebrush-obligate songbirds.
  • Continuing treatment and data collection and are currently in year four of a five+ year project.
  • Working on incorporating weather, predators, cattle locations (GPS collars), grazing utilization maps, nest vegetation and plot level vegetation data into nest survival analyses.
  • Anticipated publications: Short-term effects of moderate rotational cattle grazing on sagebrush-obligate songbirds (2020); Moderate term effects of moderate rotational cattle grazing on sagebrush-obligate songbirds (2022);Habitat selection of sagebrush-obligate songbirds (TBD)

A Rangeland Mosaic: Sage-grouse, Cattle, and Predators

Very little is known about potential benefits or threats of livestock grazing on sage-grouse habitat and populations. This project, located in Wyoming, is investigating how cattle presence on the landscape may affect local mammalian and avian sage-grouse predators. It is suspected that there may be some indirect interactions between livestock and avian predators, which may differ from interactions between livestock and mammalian predators. For example, some unpublished data out of Wyoming suggests higher golden eagle and raven abundances near pastures with domestic sheep.

  • Status: Currently collecting data in the Bighorn Basin in Wyoming including:
    • Capturing and collaring sage-grouse hens
    • Quantifying predators with avian predator point counts and transects
    • Deploying camera traps to monitor cattle and mammalian predator presence
    • Monitoring cattle with GPS and presence with patty counts

Wildlife at Risk

Influence of Weeds, Fire, and Ravens on Sage-Grouse in Baker and Malheur counties

Federal, private, and state stakeholders are concerned that high raven density has contributed to sage-grouse decline in the Baker Sage-grouse Priority Area for Conservation (PAC). Thus, we are evaluating sage-grouse and raven interactions in (1) the Baker PAC, where lethal removal of ravens has been proposed, (2) a PAC in Malheur County proposed to have non-lethal manipulation of ravens, and (3) three reference PACs in Malheur County. We are simultaneously assessing the effect of wildfire and invasive annual grasses on sage-grouse habitat use and demographic rates.

  • Status: currently collecting data including:
    • Conducting raven and raptor counts in five sage-grouse PACs
    • Capturing and tagging sage-grouse in Baker and Malheur counties
    • Tracking sage-grouse during summer and winter
    • Trapping and tracking ravens across eastern Oregon

Identifying Critical Winter Wildlife Habitat

Identification of Winter Concentration Areas for Sage-Grouse in Wyoming: Abundance and Resource Selection.

Availability and use of winter habitat by sage-grouse can influence populations but is often overlooked when prioritizing areas for sage-grouse conservation. Wyoming has identified the need to delineate winter concentration areas (WCAs), which have been defined as areas with consistently >50 sage-grouse during the winter. This study was designed to detect locations of unknown WCAs while assessing abundance and resource selection to better understand sage-grouse use of winter habitats.

  • Status:  We have analyzed and published on the use of aerial infrared from a fixed-wing aircraft to estimate resource selection functions for individual sage-grouse and flocks. We are currently working on analyses to estimate how abundance during the winter is influenced by habitat and climatic characteristics.

Sage-Grouse and Predators in “Core” Areas

Habitat Quality of Sage-Grouse Core Areas Relative to Avian and Mammalian Predators.

While human development influences sage-grouse, development also increases subsidies for avian and mammalian predators. High predator abundance can negatively influence sage-grouse demographic rates. Wyoming’s Sage-Grouse Core Area Policy added protections to important habitat for sage-grouse by reducing human development, and Core Areas have maintained higher sage-grouse trends compared to Non-Core Areas. We are comparing predator abundance within and outside Core Areas.

  • Status: We have completed raven and raptor counts and mammalian predator surveys in Core and Non-Core Areas in 11 counties in Wyoming
  • We have competed counts of sagebrush-obligate songbirds in relation to the Wyoming Core Area Policy

Wildlife Trends: Human, Environment or Both?

Factors Driving Greater Sage-Grouse Trends in the Eastern Portion of Their Range: Anthropogenic, Fire, Habitat, Hunting, Ravens, and Weather

Degradation of sagebrush habitat has occurred throughout the range of sage-grouse. Areas with greater loss of sagebrush habitat are avoided by sage-grouse and are congruent with lower demographic rates and lek extirpation. We are simultaneously evaluating the relative importance of habitat and potential predation with numerous anthropogenic, fire, habitat, hunting regulations, raven numbers, weather factors, and prevalence of West Nile virus on lek trends of sage-grouse populations in the eastern range of sage-grouse.

  • Status: Evaluating sage-grouse trends 1995–2014 in four large sage-grouse populations, including Northern Montana, Powder River Basin, Wyoming Basin, and Yellowstone Watershed

North Steens Wildlife Habitat Improvement

Influence of Juniper on Greater Steens Mountain Wildlife: Potential Benefits of Juniper Removal in Aspen and Riparian Areas

We have initiated a project to understand how juniper removal in aspen, riparian, and sagebrush vegetation types influences sensitive wildlife, specifically corvids, mule deer, raptors, and songbirds. This information will help fill knowledge gaps, informing management agencies to make best management decisions. The effects of removing junipers on songbirds and mule deer have been previously assessed, but not specifically in aspen and riparian areas within a sagebrush dominated ecosystem. To date, juniper removal has not been assessed in relation to interactive effects with avian predator abundance. Our project will take the first step in this assessment by gathering data regarding avian predator/habitat relationships. We will also integrate analyses with an ongoing study in Baker and Malheur counties (listed above) in Oregon to increase sample size and interpretations regarding corvid, raptor, and songbird ecology in the sagebrush ecosystem. 

  • Status: completed year one of pre-treatment data and are currently collecting data to:
  • Compare abundance of sensitive wildlife species, specifically songbirds and mule deer, before and after juniper removals associated with aspen, riparian, and sagebrush vegetation
  • Evaluate differential avian predator densities across a juniper cover gradient in associated with aspen, riparian, and sagebrush vegetation
  • Evaluate changes in songbird species richness before and after juniper removals associated with aspen, riparian, and sagebrush vegetation

Trainings and Outreach

Google Earth Pro, GIS hybrid course for rangeland management

This Google Earth Pro/ Geographic Information Systems hybrid course consists of seven classes that are divided into either face-to-face sessions or online sessions. The goal of this hybrid extension course is to equip land owners and managers with GIS, mapping, and rangeland management and monitoring skills needed to develop and document the outcomes of land management plans for their operations. Courses are offered throughout eastern Oregon. Contact your extension agent for more information.

Bunchgrass Phenology: Using Growth Stages of Grasses as Adaptive Grazing Management Tools (Extension Publication)

Livestock grazing in the high desert involves a careful balance of sustainable vegetation management in a shifting environment. Knowing which plant stages are most sensitive to grazing can help managers optimize their grazing strategy. Learn how with this photo guide to bunchgrass phenology

Western Roots Diving into a sagebrush seas of diversity (Extension Publication)

We recently published educational materials to aide in sagebrush-steppe ecology education. Plant displays and an accompanying publication highlighting the importance of functional groups and plant root systems are also available.

Threat-Based Land Management in the Northern Great Basin: A Manager’s Guide (Extension Publication)

We were involved in the recent publication of a guide that provides a framework for land managers to efficiently identify, discuss and address landscape-level threats. This threats-based ecosystem management decision support system aims to help landowners and managers develop science-based management objectives and actions for rangeland landscapes. Continued trainings, workshops and publications are planned for 2020.

Threat-Based Land Management in the Northern Great Basin: A Field Guide (Extension Publication)

We also helped develop a field guide version of the manager’s guide which condenses the more in-depth manager’s guide into a full-color waterproof double sided poster with a decision tree to help manager’s map the threats to sagebrush ecosystems into various states.

Educational Camps:

High Desert Youth Range Camp (High School camp on rangeland ecology)

The organizers of range camp have a passion for our western rangelands and want youth to know how exciting these lands are and how important the management of these lands are to our communities. We have designed range camp for students to get out on the landscape and learn about rangelands in a fun atmosphere. Campers learn about soils, plants, wildlife, GPS units, and talk with ranchers and scientists. OSU is continually involved in range camp, acting as presenters, facilitators, and counselors.

Science in the Sagebrush Steppe (College short course on rangeland ecology)

This college short course draws students and schools from all over the Pacific Northwest, and focuses on the science and management of western rangelands. Students learn from a variety of management professionals and scientists, and work together to develop land management plans for a pasture in the sagebrush steppe. Using lessons learned from talks about soils, plants, wildlife, cattle management, and ecosystem threats, the students develop management objectives and present a management plan to the group. OSU is continually involved in Science in the Sagebrush Steppe, acting as curriculum developers, presenters, facilitators, and counselors.

Extension publication, “Recognizing and Identifying Three Invasive Annual Grasses in the Great Basin Desert (Downy Brome, Medusahead, and Ventenata)”,

This publication focuses on germination and establishment parameters, habitat type, grazing suitability, nonchemical control, and commonly applied herbicides of annual grasses, with footnote on which are currently approved on BLM managed grounds, accompanied by images at various life stages.

Economic Study on Sage Grouse Conservation

An economic study funded by NRCS and led by University of Wyoming requested involvement from Oregon State University to participate in an inter-state project to assess the economic impact of Greater Sage-Grouse conservation on ranching communities. A series of meetings were held in both Lake and Harney Counties, and were split by ranch size and accessibility to public land. Producers shared current economic information on their types of operations. Information will be used to update Enterprise budgets and to feed the model that will be used for the project assessment