Driving across miles and miles of the American West, you might find the suggestion that sagebrush rangelands are disappearing somewhat silly, says USU rangelands scientist Mark Brunson. But scientists estimate only half the amount of these lands survives that existed at the time of European-American settlement and the rate of disappearance is increasing.
Utah State University is among nine organizations that will share a $12.9 million award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Interior's Joint Fire Science Program. The five-year, interdisciplinary research project called SageSTEP (Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project) will explore ways to improve the health of sagebrush rangelands of the Great Basin. The largest desert in the United States, the Great Basin covers 190,000 square miles in Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California.
"The Great Basin is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America," says Liz Didier, outreach program coordinator for the project. She adds that in August 1999 alone wildfires burned approximately 1.7 million acres of the massive sagebrush steppe.
"SageSTEP is an exciting opportunity for Utah State because it is truly interdisciplinary with its biophysical, economic, and social science components," Didier says. "Instead of scientists working individually and then trying to fit the pieces together, the SageSTEP team will work together to find ways to improve ecosystem health."
Brunson, a professor in USU's College of Natural Resources' Department of Environment and Society and one of the project investigators, concurs. "This is probably the largest collaborative research project ever to focus on Great Basin ecosystems," he says. "It's a big project geographically and it's also big in terms of how comprehensive we'd like it to be."
Brunson and colleague Gene Schupp, associate professor in USU's Forest, Range and Wildlife Sciences Department, are among more than 20 scientists who will study the ecological and physical effects of land management treatments such as prescribed burning, mechanical thinning of vegetation and herbicide application. The researchers will also consider the economic and social aspects of treatments, including costs and benefits to Great Basin communities and citizens' and land managers' perspectives about various treatments.
"This is a very exciting and important opportunity," says Schupp. "Our multidisciplinary approach, combined with our large-scale experimental approach, will greatly contribute to our understanding of viable land management options."
The project is a collaborative effort among Utah State, Oregon State University, University of Idaho, University of Reno-Nevada, Brigham Young University, the USDA Forest Service and Agricultural Research Service, the USDI Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey.
For more information about SageSTEP, visit the project's Web site.
Gene Schupp, 435-797-2475, email@example.com