A synopsis of short-term response to alternative restoration treatments in Sagebrush-Steppe: The SageSTEP Project
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.