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Consequences of Treating Wyoming Big Sagebrush to Enhance Wildlife Habitats

Beck, Jeffrey L., Connelly, John W., Wambolt, Carl L.
Rangeland ecology & management 2012 v.65 no.5 pp. 444-455
Antilocapra americana, Artemisia tridentata subsp. vaseyana, Artemisia tridentata subsp. wyomingensis, Centrocercus urophasianus, Cervus elaphus, Odocoileus hemionus, ecosystems, elks, foraging, herbaceous plants, keystone species, landscapes, managers, pesticide application, prescribed burning, rangelands, shrubs, wildlife, wildlife habitats
Sagebrush (Artemisia L.) taxa historically functioned as the keystone species on 1 090 000 km² of rangeland across the western United States, and Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. wyomingensis Beetle and Young) is or was dominant on a substantial amount of this landscape. Wyoming big sagebrush provides habitat for numerous wildlife species. Nevertheless, Wyoming big sagebrush communities are commonly manipulated to decrease shrub cover and density and increase the productivity and diversity of herbaceous plants. We examined relationships between management-directed changes in Wyoming big sagebrush and greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), elk (Cervus elaphus), pronghorn (Antilocapra americana), and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), species commonly associated with these ecosystems. We focused on herbicide applications, mechanical treatments, and prescribed burning, because they are commonly applied to large areas in big sagebrush communities, often with the goal to improve wildlife habitats. Specifically, our objective was to identify treatments that either enhance or imperil sagebrush habitats for these wildlife species. The preponderance of literature indicates that habitat management programs that emphasize treating Wyoming big sagebrush are not supported with respect to positive responses by sage-grouse habitats or populations. There is less empirical information on ungulate habitat response to Wyoming big sagebrush treatments, but the value of sagebrush as cover and food to these species is clearly documented. A few studies suggest small-scale treatments (≤ 60-m width) in mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana [Rydb.] Beetle) may create attractive foraging conditions for brooding sage-grouse, but these may have little relevance to Wyoming big sagebrush. Recommendations or management programs that emphasize treatments to reduce Wyoming big sagebrush could lead to declines of wildlife species. More research is needed to evaluate the response of sagebrush wildlife habitats and populations to treatments, and until that time, managers should refrain from applying them in Wyoming big sagebrush communities.