W1188: Maintaining Resilient Sagebrush & Rural Communities
(Multistate Research Project)
W1188: Maintaining Resilient Sagebrush & Rural Communities
Duration: 10/01/2018 to 09/30/2023
Statement of Issues and Justification
Sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) systems occur through most of the semi-arid western North America and is s considered one of the most imperiled ecosystems in the world (Knick et al 2003). Characterized by relatively low temperatures and precipitation, which comes primarily in the form of snow during the winter, the rate of ecosystem processes is relatively slow as evidenced by the life histories of the associated flora and fauna (Connelly et al. 2011). However, the rate of change within sagebrush systems has periodically increased beyond natural processes. One example is when Europeans began to pioneer this semi-arid region and subsequently developed agriculture and infrastructure to support settlement.
Currently, only half of the historic distribution of sagebrush land cover persists (Schroeder et al. 2004). Along with the conversion of landscapes from natural sagebrush ecosystems to agricultural lands, Euro-American settlement has resulted in an influx of exotic flora and fauna species (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013). Countless acres within sagebrush ecosystems are compromised by the presence of exotic vegetation that reduces primary productivity and has resulted in a heightened ignition risk for wildfire – a disturbance for which sagebrush systems are generally not well-adapted. Juxtaposed to the threat of exotic vegetation with too frequent fire cycles, fire suppression has led to increases in conifer encroachment into western sagebrush ecosystems (75 FR 13910 2010). When considering both threats together, i.e., exotic vegetation with increased fire cycles and conifer encroachment, it is difficult to determine which conservation actions are best for the future of sagebrush landscapes.
In eastern portions of the sagebrush biome, a different set of threats predominate. As commodity prices increase private sagebrush lands are at increased risk to conversion to cultivated croplands. Additionally, energy development is a threat as oil and natural gas resources are abundant throughout much of the area. Infrastructural support for energy extraction (e.g., roads, powerlines, associated traffic), leads to fragmentation and direct loss of sagebrush habitats. Renewable energy, such as wind power, can also result in the disturbance and loss of sagebrush habitats and is an increasing threat primarily in eastern, but also throughout, sagebrush systems (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service 2013).
Much of the remaining sagebrush biome is working agricultural lands, and is commonly used for grazing of domestic livestock. Interestingly, evidence is mounting that the drivers of ecological function in this fragile system are not only beneficial to wildlife resources but have shared values with sustainable agricultural practices. Recent unprecedented conservation efforts put forth to ensure long-term population viability of obligate sagebrush species such as sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus; USFWS 2010), present a unique opportunity to evaluate both the biological and socio-economic outcomes of sagebrush conservation actions at a continental scale.
The fate of greater sage-grouse, an endemic and obligate of the sagebrush ecosystem, is directly linked to sagebrush (Connelly et al. 2011). As sagebrush has been lost or degraded, the distribution and abundance of the species have diminished commensurately (Schroeder et al. 2004). Sage-grouse are considered an umbrella species for sagebrush ecosystems, because their life-history requires a heterogeneous landscape of sagebrush species and habitat structure. A variety of sagebrush structure types are necessary for concealing and incubating nests, providing available forage in deep snow, or more open canopy mesic areas for young chicks (Hanser and Knick 2011). Thus, landscapes that contain all of these components are not only beneficial to sage-grouse, but provide resources for other sagebrush obligate and dependent species. Additionally, ecosystem services provided by intact and healthy sagebrush systems benefit society as well as these important species.
SAGEBRUSH ECOSYSTEM SERVICES AND SOCIETY
In light of the various threats, the human and economic dimensions for sagebrush system communities have unique and unprecedented landscape-level dimensions for the western U.S. (Sayre et al. 2012). Recent theoretical work by Bestelmeyer and Briske (2012) documented the need for resilience-based management of rangelands and is arguably applicable to the sagebrush system specifically, but did not extend the integration of socio-economic components to a distilled threats framework. Some successful efforts are showing positive effects on decision-making outcomes by including local knowledge (e.g., rancher participation in program efforts; Lubell et al. 2013) as well as increasing collaborative capacity (Wilmer et al. 2017). Integration of the human community impacts within the sagebrush system has multiple elements. Examples of this integration may include, 1) quantifiable economic relationships related to livestock production components (Ritten et al 2010); 2) the need to understand valuation of more qualitative components such as sense of place, community cohesion; 3) anxiety from the contemporary threat of litigation (Wulfhorst et al. 2006) ; and 4) broader trends of changes to culture and landscape structure (Nassauer 1995).
Human communities in the sagebrush system span a rural-to-urban continuum. However, rural communities are typically most directly and disproportionately affected by public lands policy and management of sagebrush systems, and often lack planning resources, resulting in gaps between small municipalities and larger ecosystem services expectations. Moreover, community motivations, incentives, and behaviors to adapt to shifting public policies relating to natural resource management needs (e.g., sage-grouse conservation) vary substantially. In this context, threats to the sagebrush ecosystem can manifest in human dimensions in the form of increased stress or anxiety, impacts to morale and cohesion, intergenerational change affecting management and land-use, as well as perceived constraints on livelihood scenarios. Effects to each scale within the human communities – individuals, families, organizations – manifest relative to social and economic relationships that are based on public lands resource management for western landscapes.
The economic returns of grazing are highly dependent on annual forage production. The increased presence of exotic annual species, especially cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), alters both the amount and timing of forage production in these systems. Cheatgrass specifically limits season of use in that it is palatable to domestic livestock for only in the spring and fall, and limits native forage species, resulting in reduced native biomass production later in the grazing season. Likewise, conifer encroachment into grazing lands negatively impacts both the production of perennial grasses and forbs, and shortens growing seasons due to decreased soil water availability (Miller et al. 2017), and access to forage production (Schmelzer et al 2014). The impact of this phenomena results in decreased returns to livestock producers, which ultimately negatively impacts rural communities. Further, changes to precipitation patterns can have a negative impact on livestock production. Cow/calf producers that are forced to liquidate breeding stock in the face of reduced annual forage are impacted as retaining heifers post-drought results in at least a two-year lag before reaching calf sales levels prior to any liquidation. Given forage production responses to growing season precipitation, wetter years do not have the same positive impacts that dryer years have (non-linear response to precipitation). Thus, if annual precipitation becomes more variable, as is predicted under some climate forecasts, the benefits of some wetter years are overshadowed by the increased threats of dryer years and increased evapotranspiration (Polley et al. 2013).
Increasing commodity prices may make sagebrush conversion for cultivation economically viable, potentially creating a conflict on private lands between economic development and habitat conservation. Fragmentation and loss of sagebrush due to energy development and supporting infrastructure may have negative impacts to agricultural producers through loss of net primary productivity (Allred et al. 2015). Alternatively, some forms of energy production may increase water availability (e.g. coal bed methane ponds) or provide an additional economic resource to individual landowners (e.g. annual rental fees for wind turbines). The benefits and costs from energy development, and resulting conservation efforts implemented for sagebrush dependent species, on land users and owners, and associated economies is poorly understood.
The sagebrush biome provides many other benefits to society beyond forage for livestock production including maintenance of rural economies and lifestyles. Management of these systems is complex as often the trade-offs between these other services (e.g., habitat for wildlife, plant biodiversity, water quality, and resistance to soil erosion), are often not well understood. While decisions such as the timing and intensity of livestock grazing, and energy development can impact the provision of these other services, exogenous factors such as weather and fire can dramatically shape system evolution over time. Further complicating the problems of management of these large systems is that many of the accrued associated benefits are not market-based making profit-motivated decisions difficult. There are also benefits to people that are not directly tied to the landscape. This landscape is also often defined as a mix of private and public land holdings, with management decisions rarely being coordinated at the landscape level.
Related, Current and Previous Work
While the basic biology and ecology of sage-grouse has been thoroughly studied (Knick and Connelly, editors 2011) as have several components of the larger sagebrush biome (Wisdom et al 2005), efforts to link this knowledge base with socio-economic dimensions are sparse. Recent research efforts have focused on evaluating the biological and ecological outcomes of conservation actions to restore populations and vegetation communities. For example, the journal Rangeland Ecology and Management dedicated an entire issue (REM volume 70) to research evaluating the effects of conifer-removal to at-risk sagebrush ecosystem obligates (Miller et al. 2017). These evaluations provide an opportunity to begin examinations of socio-ecologic relationships of these actions, and ultimately quantify mutual benefit where it occurs.
Recent examples of the analysis of the economic impacts of federal management decisions regarding natural resources can be found in the BLM draft Resource Management Plans amendments and accompanying Environmental Impact Statements for all 15 BLM planning units that contain greater sage-grouse habitat (reviewed by Baier and Segal 2014). There is a lack of consistency in the reporting of the economic impact results across the plans (Baier and Segal 2014) which aggregation of results to obtain an overall regional perspective. In an independent study, Stoellinger and Taylor (2017) found that the economic loss from no livestock grazing on core sage-grouse habitat in Wyoming would result in a direct economic impact loss of $445.1 million, a total economic impact loss of $922.8 million, a loss of 10,201 jobs, and total labor income loss of $304.1 million over an eight-year time period.
For livestock grazing and other natural resource industries, greater accuracy in economic impact estimates can be achieved by incorporating region specific data into the economic impact models. As an example, a detailed discussion of how to incorporate enterprise budgets for livestock grazing into common economic planning models (e.g., IMPLAN) can be found in Coupal and Holland (1995) and Fadali et al. (2012). Once an appropriately specified regional model is in place, the next step is to incorporate the ranch-level production responses from changes in federal grazing policy in order to estimate the economic impact on the overall economy in the region. A common approach used in estimating the economic impact of federal livestock grazing is a simple change in livestock production based on the potential change in federal animal unit months (AUMs) of grazing. A problem with this approach is that federal grazing is not typically used by a rancher in isolation but rather as a part of an individual ranch’s overall grazing system. Previous analysis has demonstrated that if a ranch is seasonally dependent on federal grazing, as is typically the case for many western ranches in northern climates, a reduction in federal AUMs can create forage imbalances that result in greater reductions in production than those that just result from reduction in federally allotted AUMs (Torell et al. 2014). The potential for cascading economic effects suggests a ranch-level economic analysis first needs to be conducted to determine the potential changes on overall production from a change in federal grazing allotment. These changes can then be incorporated into the economic impact analysis (e.g., Stoellinger and Taylor 2017). The regionalization of economic impact models would also be appropriate for other natural resource industries.
The Western Association of Wildlife Agencies has initiated an effort to draft a conservation strategy for the sagebrush ecosystem. The proposed inter-agency Sagebrush Conservation Strategy (slated for completion in 2020) is intended to build on collaborative efforts between State and Federal agencies, academia, tribes, and stakeholders, all of whom are implementing conservation efforts in the sagebrush biome. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has funded 6 projects under the related Sagebrush Science Initiative to address knowledge gaps in our understanding of different biological components of the sagebrush ecosystem. These parallel efforts will provide additional biological scientific underpinnings to further our understanding of how any proposed conservation efforts may affect the human and economic components proposed here.
Prioritize threats to sagebrush systems and construct a prioritization framework
Comments: Threats to sagebrush systems result in a loss of ecosystem services for dependent species and local communities throughout the West. We synthesized existing threat frameworks from organizations involved in sagebrush ecosystem conservation, focusing on threats to the sagebrush system and dependent species. Natural variation in the ecology of the sagebrush biome influences type and intensity of the threats.Sagebrush Ecosystem Threats Framework: • Invasive Weeds/Grass and Wildfire • Sagebrush Alteration • Cultivation • Sagebrush Removal • Loss of Mesic Areas • Conifer Expansion • Human Use & Development • Energy Extraction • Urban Development • Mining • Recreation • Improper Grazing • Inappropriate Livestock Grazing • Free-Roaming Equids Our sub-objectives are to: 1.1. Combine existing data from multiple institutions to enhance collaboration improving inference on social/ecological issues, 1.2. Integrate socio-ecological sciences to assess consequences of threats (real and perceived), 1.3. Prioritize and compare threats by ecological and social frameworks, 1.4. Evaluate the socio-ecological outcomes of threat reduction, 1.5. Develop a framework to resolve differences in ecological and social threat prioritization, 1.6. Create a common data collection framework to facilitate regional assessment.
Evaluate links between land management and health of rural communities in the sagebrush biome.
Comments: A perception in many rural communities is that the conservation of threatened and endangered species does not adequately consider the impact on local land use or economies (Public Lands Council, 2017). An example of such conflict is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Land Use Plans (LUPs) developed in response to proposed listing of greater sage-grouse. Recently, collaborative groups have arisen in several locations to provide input on land management decisions. Many social and economic forces are transforming the economies and structure of rural communities in the West such as mineral and energy extraction. The economic impacts of federal management decisions regarding natural resources significantly influence the businesses and individuals in the surrounding communities. These linkages mean that resource production generates jobs and income not only in the agriculture sector but also in other sectors in the local economy that support natural resource sector or serve employee households. Previous studies have failed to implement integrated approaches that contextualize social behaviors and attitudes within social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems. We seek to: 2.1 Understand the dynamics of economic drivers upon conservation and socioeconomic communities, 2.2 Identify the means to build social and ecological capital to enable effective conservation of sagebrush and rural communities, 2.3 Evaluate the effectiveness of collaboration and local working groups in these processes.
Engage local communities in research and outreach
Comments: Engagement implies a dialogue between researchers and stakeholders. Results from integrated research on threats and consequences to sagebrush and human communities and the links between sagebrush land management and the health of rural communities must be communicated to key stakeholders to be meaningful. In addition, listening to those stakeholders on their concerns, issues, solutions, and alternatives will inform researchers as to the important questions to address. In both cases, education about science, values, and culture will occur in all directions. Our sub-objectives are to: 3.1. Provide land and wildlife management agencies with factsheets and presentation that summarize the relationship between ecological outcomes of land management actions to socio-economic consequences. 3.2. Produce outreach materials that clearly communicate how the ecological threats to sagebrush systems can have impacts on local and state socio-economic.
Objective 1. Prioritize threats to sagebrush systems and construct a prioritization framework
- Identify existing, relevant, and accessible datasets at collaborative universities and other institutions that can be integrated. Develop hypotheses along with appropriate analyses and then utilize datasets to produce scientific information. Identify opportunities within datasets to integrate social, economic, and ecological data that can be used for analyses. Combine broad-scale interstate datasets and develop collaborations within areas of expertise, i.e., social, economic, and ecological, to fill specific knowledge gaps. An example includes combining radio-marked sage-grouse location, habitat, and demographic data across state boarders and multiple universities and develop questions that can be addressed with existing data.
- Consequences of sagebrush biome threats to local economies and ecological systems will be assessed as realized and perceived. Real consequences to local economies will be quantified with economic model projections and simulations. Whereas, real consequences to ecological services will be quantified through concatenation of literature from multiple species response to threats and potential of mitigation actions to reduce those threats. Surveys of multiple stakeholder groups will be used to quantify perceived consequences to both local economies and the sagebrush system including those species dependent on sagebrush habitats. This will entail utilizing combined existing datasets to quantify loss of economic returns (economic opportunities) and critical habitat and loss of economic returns.
- Conduct a literature review to identify existing threat frameworks that can be used in a meta-analysis to quantify effect sizes to rank threats importance to ecological and social frameworks.
- We will work with stakeholders to develop measurable indicators (e.g., social, economic, or ecological) to quantify the outcomes of proposed threat reduction strategies. Science-based economic and modeling frameworks will be developed to estimate potential impacts and trade-offs of proposed actions to mitigate threats. Use of existing and novel data sets will be critical in measuring and evaluating overall changes to the system from the baseline. Projected outcomes of threat reduction strategies will be mapped using a procudtion possibilities frontier to evaluate trade-offs among these indicators of alternative mitigation strategies.
- We will rank each threat in terms of negative impacts on ecological and socioeconomic factors. Ranking each threat in terms of level of impact will identify the threats that are common across socio-ecological factors and those that only impact a sub-set of the factors. Further, we will analyze these rankings across threats that are likely to be reduced by human intervention. We will also measure how threat reduction improves each of the impacts to our socio-ecological factors of interest. By doing so we will be able to identify which threats can/should be reduced, and prioritize efforts to those have the greatest impact either in terms of overall benefit or benefits to specific factors of interest. This approach will allow us to evaluate the trade-offs of reducing certain threats on each of the factors of interest. We will also be able to identify perceived threats that are expected to have minimal real negative consequences.
- Identify and consolidate metrics used to measure loss of ecosystem services. From this list generate guidelines that promote consistency in data collection across the sagebrush biome. Develop a common on-line database accessible to registered users to upload these data. The database should be structured to allow for analyses by all registered users at multiple geographic scales and allow for spatial analyses as appropriate. Provide a structure for database management to allow for database longevity and accessibility. Examples of an existing similar database is the Conservation Efforts Database created by the FWS and USGS to capture conservation efforts in the sagebrush ecosystem by all practitioners across all landownerships and project types.
Objective 2. Evaluate links between land management and health of rural communities in the sagebrush biome.
- One modeling system commonly used for economic impact analysis is IMPLAN. IMPLAN is an economic assessment package which provides economic resolution down to the county level (http://implan.com/). By constructing Social Accounts that describe the structure and function of a specific economy, IMPLAN creates a localized model to investigate the consequences of projected economic activity in a specific geographic region. IMPLAN is typically used for economic impact analysis because it is readily available for any county in the United States, it is very detailed (536 sectoring scheme), it is relatively easy to adjust to more accurately reflect the structure of local industries, and it is relatively inexpensive. IMPLAN is widely used by academia, government, and corporations. To address the policy implications of land management decisions we will evaluate the economic impacts of these decisions on local economies in terms changes in jobs and income for residents.
- To identify the social and economic capital components, we will administer surveys, focus groups, and interviews to assess the impact of land use plans upon conservation efforts and the surrounding communities. To establish the linkage between anthropogenic land use and ecosystem function, we will integrate existing data sets (including spatial data) to inform models about ecosystem processes. For example, how does tree removal affect sage grouse habitat attributes? The multi-method approach will allow the integration of qualitative and quantitative datasets needed to contribute to the proposed systems modeling approach.
- To evaluate the effectiveness of collaboration and local working group processes, we will design participatory workshops that integrate socio-economic and ecological concepts, data collection, and analyses. The workshops will involve a diverse set of stakeholders representative of the affected communities across the region. We will also evaluate economic impacts on participant stakeholders and the response of habitats to conservation practices (e.g., tree removal, exotic grass eradication).
Objective 3. Engage local communities in research and outreach
- The team will actively engage stakeholders within the rural communities during the relevant phases of research activities. Initially this will be in areas where active field research is being planned and conducted. We will meet with key stakeholders such as private and public land management agencies, state and federal wildlife agencies, county and community government, and interest groups. To engage the stakeholders directly in the research process requires incentivized and structured formats to elicit input within participatory and co-designed processes on questions being investigated, appropriate research locations, and means to mitigate concerns they may have. Once the research is underway, we will continue to engage those groups and others to ensure a transparent and mutually beneficial outcome.
- If the opportunity arises, we will work to develop a citizen-science component to this objective. Ideas may be solicited from the community as to the need and practicality of implementation. Successful efforts in this include but are not limited to a national plant phenology network (USA National Phenology Network at https://www.usanpn.org/) and various weed mapping activities (for example, cal-ipc.org/symposia/archive/pdf/2010/1Brigham.pdf describes a phone app). There may be opportunities for local communities to be involved with installing treatments or continual monitoring of locations. Competitions with restoration (Wyoming Cheatgrass Challenge, https://www.facebook.com/WYrestorationchallenge/) or management (Adaptive Grazing Management Experiment, https://www.ars.usda.gov/plains-area/fort-collins-co/center-for-agricultural-resources-research/rangeland-resources-systems-research/docs/range/adaptive-grazing-management/research/) techniques have also been successful in engaging the community. These kinds of activities can provide a sense of ownership by the community in the research and provide researchers with resources they may not otherwise have.
The Cooperative Extension component of this project will play a key role in leading these efforts. In most cases, the local Extension educator or specialist will have the contacts and relationships with the key stakeholders. Researchers will be relied upon to participate in all activities.
Measurement of Progress and Results
- 1. Integrated conceptual model that depicts the complex relationships among ecological, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of sagebrush management and policy- and knowledge gaps between the ecological and economic interface
- 2. Assessment of existing data, consolidated database, and identify data gaps
- 3. Identification of funding targets and generate extramural proposals
- 4. Publications (refereed journal articles, extension bulletins, synthesis papers)
- 5. Presentations and outreach activities (local, regional, and national venues; e.g., workshops, field tours)
Outcomes or Projected Impacts
- 1. Increased capacity and availability of social-ecological science and integrated research efforts about ecosystem health in sagebrush systems
- 2. A framework for defining indicators, operationalization of measures, and identification of relationships within and integrated conceptual model
- 3. Improve the transfer and use of science from land grant universities to agencies and policy makers, as well as information flow to local communities and stakeholders
- 4. Improve effectiveness of local-to-national land management / policies
Projected ParticipationView Appendix E: Participation
We will use existing Extension programs such as local working groups or focus groups to reach sagebrush stakeholders more efficiently. These existing Extension networks will include landowners, state and federal agency personnel and county extension faculty. This will allow for quick and easy dissemination of findings from our group and it will also provide a readily available source for input on social economic impacts. Results will be disseminated to research and extension constituents through peer-reviewed or refereed publications; presentations at state, regional and national professional meetings, webinars, and social media. Examples of the professional meetings include state and national conferences in natural resource management (e.g., Society for Range Management, The Wildlife Society) and natural resource policy (e.g., North American Wildlife and Natural Resource Conference).
Results from collaborative research will be vetted by various stakeholders at local and regional workshops.
The workgroup will be comprised of members with a diverse scientific backgrounds from land-grant universities located throughout the sagebrush biome. All members will be active participants. The organizational structure consists of a chair, vice-chair, and secretary who will be nominated and elected annually by the members of the workgroup. The chair and vice-chair will appoint subcommittees to complete specific tasks. Conference calls will be held as needed and at least one annual meeting will occur to discuss progress. After the initial call for participation, new membership will be evaluated by the officers and subcommittee leads, with a vote of the membership occurring either at the annual meeting or by electronic poll. Voting criteria will be based upon the project’s need for specific expertise.
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