Does prescribed sagebrush burning follow science or dogma?

By Jack Connelly

A prescribed fire is applied on Camas National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho. ©Austin Catlin/USFWS

Prescribed fire is often presented as a savior of wildlife and their habitats, restoring ecosystems and protecting landscapes from catastrophic wildfires. However, for greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and many sagebrush ecosystems, a number of studies suggest that nothing could be further from the truth.

Promotion of prescribed fire as a management tool is ongoing. In August, the U.S. Forest Service released a new strategy that, in part, calls for increasing the use of prescribed fires. In 2016, The Wildlife Society recognized the growing interest in prescribed fire use and published a technical review that evaluated its effects on wildlife across a variety of ecosystems and habitats in North America. The June 22 issue of the eWildlifer included a photo of a prescribed burn in sagebrush with a caption highlighting potential benefits of wildlife by using prescribed fires as a management tool.

Given the wide variety of wildlife habitats across North America, it would be surprising if any habitat management technique, including fire, is universally effective. Indeed, numerous publications have urged caution when using prescribed fire and other techniques aimed at damaging or destroying sagebrush. In part, this is due to the continued loss of sagebrush throughout western North America. An estimated 4 million acres of sage-grouse habitat were burned by wildfire from 2016 through 2018.

In 2014, I published a paper addressing shortcomings of federal sage-grouse conservation efforts, arguing that conservation of the species is hampered by bureaucratic approaches and continued reliance on rhetoric and dogma. My arguments were built on several papers published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin and other peer review journals that underscored the dangers of prescribed fire in sagebrush habitats.

In 2000, three co-authors and I published a paper in WSB which documented a 90 percent sage-grouse population decline attributed to prescribed fire and drought. We recommended that resource managers refrain from burning in low-precipitation sagebrush habitats used by breeding sage-grouse. Following this publication, scientists assessed recovery of habitats in the same study area and concluded that the sagebrush did not recover in magnitude or variability to pre-burn levels 14 years after fire. They encouraged managers to avoid burning Wyoming big sagebrush to enhance sage-grouse habitat.

A WSB paper in 2006 again stated that prescribed burning is unwarranted or inadvisable if conservation of sagebrush landscapes and sagebrush-dependent species is the goal. Similarly, in a study of Montana sagebrush landscapes, researchers concluded prescribed fire is not a desirable management option in stands of Wyoming or basin big sagebrush. The authors in both of these studies highlighted the loss of the sagebrush resource and recovery periods of more than 35 years after a prescribed fire.

Despite these peer-reviewed, scientific conclusions, natural resource agencies often continue to support prescribed fire as a generally appropriate management tool for sagebrush landscapes. In eastern Idaho, the Agricultural Research Service uses prescribed fire as part of its land management program, while the Bureau of Land Management conducted prescribed burns in sage-grouse breeding habitat from 2014 to 2016.

TWS’ own technical review concludes with a statement that prescribed fire’s benefits generally outweigh negative effects. My research, and that of others, has shown this isn’t the case when applied to sage-grouse in sagebrush ecosystems, and the technical review highlights that as well.

Agencies’ support of fire on these landscapes appears to represent a reliance on rhetoric and dogma rather than best available science.

John “Jack” Connelly, PhD, is a retired state agency biologist who spent more than 40 years studying sage-grouse and sagebrush ecosystems.

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