Topic 6 Eastern Range: Land Management Tools

This section explores the tools available to land managers. Scroll down the page to read each sub-section, or click the Land Management Tools drop-down navigation to go directly to a sub-section.


Begin by listening to Jeanne Chambers discuss the focus for managers in the eastern range.


Some management strategies and tools for persistent ecosystem and anthropogenic threats are presented here with reference to the cells of the sage-grouse habitat Resilience and Resistance matrix (Chambers et al. 2016, table 5).


Although the fire regime is greatly changed in the eastern range from pre-settlement conditions, in general, although numerous fires have burned in this ecoregion in the past 15 years, most large fires have occurred within conifer dominated ecosystems and outside of sage-grouse Priority Areas for Conservation (Chambers et al. 2016, Figure 8). Protection of areas supporting sagebrush is important for maintaining sage-grouse habitat. Management Zone I has limited availability of sagebrush and all areas with moderate and low resilience and resistance have longer recovery periods.


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Figure 8 Click the image for a printable version.


Fire suppression typically shifts from low to moderate priority when resistance and resilience categories shift from high to moderate (matrix column C -> column B), but it varies with large fire risk and landscape condition. In low resistance and resilience areas, the priority shifts from moderate to high as sage-grouse habitat probability increases (cells 3B -> 3C). Scenarios requiring high fire suppression priority may include:

  • Areas of sagebrush that bridge large, contiguous expanses of sagebrush and that are important for providing connectivity for sage-grouse.
  • Areas where sagebrush communities have been successfully reestablished through seedings or other rehabilitation investments.
  • All areas during critical fire weather conditions, where fire growth may move into valued sagebrush communities.

Fuels management includes vegetation projects that mitigate wildfire risk, improve resilience to disturbance, and restore habitat, as well as actions intended to protect intact sage-grouse habitat.

Mechanical treatments are typically applied to reduce fuel loading or to alter species composition consistent with Land Use Plan objectives.

  • Mechanical treatments conducted to minimize sagebrush loss (e.g., conifer reduction) are a high priority in areas with high breeding habitat probabilities and moderate to high resilience and resistance (cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C; top right corner of the matrix), and shift to low in areas with low breeding habitat probabilities (cells 1A and 2A).
  • In areas of low resilience and resistance, mechanical treatments to minimize sagebrush loss shift in priority from low to high as the sage-grouse habitat probability increases (cells 3B -> 3C). However, treatments intended to decrease fuel loads and increase perennial herbaceous species may be ineffective if insufficient perennial grasses and forbs exist to promote recovery and resist invasive plant species.
  • Management activities may include:
    • Conifer removal in early to mid-phase (Phase I, II) stands to maintain shrub/herbaceous cover and reduce fuel loads.
    • Removal of mountain shrub species that encroach into sagebrush communities (e.g., gambel oak, curlleaf mountain mahogany, snowberry, serviceberry).
    • Conifer removal in later phase (Phase III) stands to reduce risks or large or high severity fires.
    • Herbicide and/or seeding associated with mechanical treatments to reduce invasive species and restore native perennial species in areas with insufficient native perennial grasses and forbs for recovery.

Prescribed fire is one form of fuels management that may be used to improve habitat conditions or create fuel conditions that limit future fire spread in areas with moderate to high resilience and resistance, but should be considered only after consultation with local biologists and land managers.

  • Consider alternatives to prescribed fire where other treatment alternatives may meet management objectives.
  • In low resilience and resistance areas, consider prescribed fire only after consultation with local biologists and land managers and when:
    • Site information, such as state-and-transition models, affirm that the post-burn trajectory will lead to functioning sagebrush communities. Most low resilience and resistance areas that receive < 12 inches (30.5 cm) of precipitation do not respond favorably to burning.
    • Burning is part of multi-stage restoration projects where burning is required to remove biomass following chemical treatments for site preparation.
    • Monitoring data validates that the pre-burn composition will lead to successful, native plant dominance post-burn.
  • Use prescribed fire selectively in moderate to high resilience and resistance areas, after consultation with local biologists and land managers and assessing site recovery potential and other management options based on the following:
    • Pre-burn community composition;
    • Probability of invasive species establishment;
    • Historic fire regime, and patch size/pattern to be created by burning;
    • Wildfire risk and desired fuel loading to protect intact sagebrush; and
    • Alternative treatments that may meet objectives.
  • Prescribed fire activities may include:
    • Burning piles or concentrations of woody biomass resulting from mechanical treatments.
    • Broadcast burning in areas having conifer concentrations that interface with sagebrush communities, while intentionally avoiding burning intact sagebrush that is not fire tolerant.
    • Creating fuel conditions that constrain future fire spread.
    • Prescribed fire adjacent to intact habitat where treatment will aid in wildfire suppression.
    • Prescribed fire to create landscape patterns that improve resilience and desired species composition.

Chemical and seeding treatments are conducted to reduce invasive species and to change species composition to native and/or more fire resistant species where native perennial grasses and forbs are depleted.

Herbicide treatments and seedings are used to decrease invasive species composition and increase native species dominance where perennial native grasses and forbs are insufficient for site recovery. Herbicide treatments may be selectively applied in conjunction with prescribed fire or mechanical treatments. Typically, these treatments are in response to clear evidence of a nonnative invasive species threat.

Post-fire rehabilitation is a cross-cutting effort involving range, wildlife, soils, fire, and fuels subject matter expertise. General considerations for prioritization of post-fire rehabilitation efforts are:

  • Priority shifts from generally low priority (cells 1A, 2A, 3A, 1B, and 1C in the habitat probability matrix) to moderate priority in moderate resilience and resistance areas (cells 2B, 2C). Areas of low resilience/resistance shift in priority from low priority to high priority with increasing habitat probability for sage-grouse (cells 3B -> 3C).
  • Areas of higher priority include:
    • Areas where perennial herbaceous cover, density, and species composition are inadequate for recovery.
    • Areas where seeding or transplanting sagebrush are needed to maintain habitat connectivity for sage-grouse.
    • Areas threatened by nonnative invasive plants.
    • Steep slopes and soils with erosion potential.


Annual grass/fire cycles and increases in fire frequency are not yet as problematic in the Eastern Range as in the western portion of the range, but conversion to invasive annual grasses is an increasing problem in some areas (Chambers et al. 2016).

Invasive annual grasses and other annual invaders are facilitated by oil and gas drilling, mining disturbances, and vegetation management treatments designed to reduce Wyoming big sagebrush density and increase understory grasses and forbs.

Management alternatives:

Protect high quality (relatively weed-free) sagebrush communities with moderate-to-high sage-grouse habitat probabilities (matrix cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C):

  • Focus on preventing introduction and establishment of invasive species, especially in low resistance areas with high susceptibility to annual grass invasion (in and adjacent to cells 3B, 3C);
  • Avoid seeding introduced forage species (e.g., crested wheatgrass, smooth brome) in post-fire rehabilitation or restoration in moderate to high resilience and resistance areas because these species can dominate sagebrush communities; and
  • Practice Early Detection-Rapid Response (EDRR) approaches for emerging invasive species of concern (in and adjacent to cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C).

Where weed populations already exist, seek opportunities to maximize treatment effectiveness by prioritizing restoration within relatively intact sagebrush communities (matrix cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C). Restoration will likely be easier at locations in cooler and moister ecological types with higher resilience and resistance.

  • Prioritize sites with sufficient native perennial herbaceous species to respond to release from invasive plant competition;
  • Manage grazing to reduce invasive species and promote native perennial grasses. In cool and moist areas, manage grazing to reduce crested wheatgrass, Kentucky bluegrass, smooth brome, and other introduced forage species and to promote native cool season perennial grasses; and
  • Attempt proactive management of invasive annual grasses in the understory of sagebrush stands to reduce wildfire risk where proven methods exist (rather than focusing efforts exclusively on post-fire annual grass control).

Restrict spread of large weed infestations located in lower habitat probability areas (cells 1A, 2A, 3A) to prevent compromising adjacent higher quality habitats (matrix cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C).


Studies on the impacts of conifer expansion on Greater Sage-Grouse from across the eastern range indicate that the species avoids or is negatively associated with conifer cover during lekking, nesting, summer, and wintering life stages. Furthermore, summer survival of females in Wyoming was negatively associated with proximity to forested areas and sage-grouse mortality was higher closer to woodlands than for locations farther from woodlands. Conifer expansion is a minor to major threat in many, but not all, parts of the eastern range (Chambers et al. 2016, Figure 11). Outside the eastern range, sage-grouse have been shown to incur population-level impacts at a very low level of conifer expansion (Baruch-Mordo et al. 2013).

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Figure 11 Click the image for a printable version.

Some recommend practices for conifer management include:

  • Apply integrated vegetation management practices to treat conifer expansion, using an interdisciplinary approach in designing projects and treatments.
  • Focus tree removal on early to mid-phase (e.g., Phases I, II) conifer expansion into sagebrush ecological sites to maintain shrub/herbaceous cover.
  • Use prescribed burning selectively in moderate to high resilience/resistance (matrix cells 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B) to control conifer expansion.
  • Prioritize for treatment:
    • Areas with habitat characteristics that can support sage-grouse with moderate to high resilience and resistance (cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C), especially near leks. (Note: cells 3B and 3C are generally too warm and dry to support conifers.)
    • Areas where conifer removal will provide connectivity between sagebrush habitats.
    • Areas where sufficient perennial grasses and forbs exist to promote recovery.

Threat: Grazing

Begin by watching this video from the Sage Grouse Initiative about developing grazing systems for cattle and sage-grouse in Montana.

Livestock grazing is the most widespread land use in the eastern range (Chambers et al. 2016).

Literature reviews suggest that the greatest potential for livestock grazing to affect sage-grouse habitat is by changing composition, structure, and productivity of herbaceous plants used for nesting/early brood-rearing (e.g., Boyd et al. 2014). Research indicates that sage-grouse nest and early brood micro-habitat selection and brood-rearing success are closely tied to areas with greater sagebrush and grass canopy cover and height than are randomly available in sagebrush landscapes. As an additional consideration, infrastructure related to domestic livestock grazing (e.g., water developments) can result in loss of vegetation structure and plant species diversity near these features and fences can contribute to collision related mortality, particularly when located on flat terrain in close proximity to leks.


Manage livestock grazing to maintain a balance of perennial native grasses (warm and/or cool season species as described in the Ecological Site Descriptions for that area), forbs, and biological soil crusts to allow natural regeneration and to maintain resilience. Ensure strategies prevent degradation and loss of native cool-season grasses in particular. Areas with low to moderate resilience and resistance may be particularly vulnerable (matrix cells 2A, 2B, 2C, 3A, 3B, 3C)

Implement grazing strategies that incorporate periodic rest during the critical growth period, especially for cool season grasses, to ensure maintenance of a mixture of native perennial grasses. This strategy is important across all sites, but particularly essential on areas with low to moderate resilience and resistance supporting sage-grouse habitat (cells 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C).

Ensure grazing strategies are designed to promote native plant communities and decrease nonnative invasive species. In ephemeral drainages and higher precipitation areas that receive more summer moisture and have populations of nonnative invasive plant species, too much rest may inadvertently favor species such as field brome, Kentucky bluegrass, and smooth brome. Adjustments in timing, duration, and intensity of grazing may be needed to reduce these species.

Threat: Energy Development

Loss of sagebrush cover associated with energy, primarily oil and gas development, has been well-documented and is considered a persistent and widespread threat to almost all Greater Sage-Grouse populations in the eastern range.

Research indicates that energy development activities have significant effects on sage-grouse and can result in localized extirpations of sage-grouse populations. In addition, infrastructure related to energy development (e.g., roads, pipelines, storage facilities, mines, wind turbines, transmission lines) decreases the effectiveness of habitat for sage-grouse.

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Management strategies include:

Avoid development, if feasible, in areas with high breeding habitat probability for sage-grouse and high sagebrush cover (matrix cells 1C, 2C, 3C) and steer development to non-habitat areas (cells 1A, 2A, 3A).

Minimize habitat fragmentation in areas with moderate and high breeding habitat probabilities for sage-grouse (matrix cells 1B, 2B, 3B, 1C, 2C, 3C).

For disturbances that remove vegetation and cause soil disturbance, minimize and mitigate impacts (top soil banking, certified weed-free seed mixes, appropriate seeding technologies, and monitoring). Plan for multiple restoration interventions in areas with low resilience and resistance (matrix cells 3B, 3C).

Minimize energy transport corridors (e.g., roads, pipelines, transmission lines) and limit vehicle access, where feasible.

Maintain resilience and resistance of existing patches of sagebrush habitat by aggressively managing weeds that may require the following management practices (especially important in low resilience and resistant areas - matrix cells 3A, 3B, 3C):

  • A weed management plan that addresses management actions specific to a project area;
  • Using certified weed-free gravel and fill material;
  • Assessing and treating weed populations, if necessary, prior to surface disturbing activities;
  • Removing mud, dirt, and plant parts from construction equipment;
  • Addressing weed risk and spread factors in travel management plans;
  • Ensuring timely establishment of desired native plant species on reclamation sites;
  • Using locally adapted native seed, if possible;
  • Intensively monitoring reclamation sites to ensure seeding success and to determine presence of weeds;
  • Using mulch, soil amendments, or other practices to expedite reclamation success when necessary; and
  • Ensuring weeds are controlled on stockpiled topsoil.

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Threat: Sagebrush Reduction

Reduction and fragmentation of sagebrush habitats can decrease Greater Sage-Grouse abundance and reduce the distribution of sage-grouse across the landscape. In addition, indirect effects such as increased mortality and reduced reproductive success of sage-grouse have also been documented.

Management strategies:

  • Avoid intentional sagebrush removal across all areas due to relatively limited sagebrush availability and extended periods of recovery. Many areas are characterized by moderate to moderately low resilience and resistance, and most sagebrush species lack the capacity to resprout.
  • Use caution when attempting to increase herbaceous perennials by reducing sagebrush dominance through mechanical or chemical treatments in general.
    • Lower resistance and resilience areas are prone to annual grass increases and potential dominance if annual grasses exist in the area before treatment.
    • Pretreatment densities of 2 to 3 native perennial bunch grasses per square meter are often necessary for successful increases in perennial herbaceous plants and for suppression of annual grasses after treatment in lower resistance and resilience areas (Miller et al. 2014, 2015).

Threat: Urban and Exurban Development

Loss of sagebrush due to urban and exurban (residential) development since Anglo-American settlement is estimated at up to 29.2% in parts of the eastern range. Most residential areas are on the edge of the current distribution of sagebrush and Greater Sage-Grouse rather than within core areas, but resource use and connecting infrastructure can extend well beyond the boundaries of developed areas.

Management strategies:

  • Secure conservation easements to maintain existing sagebrush stands and sage-grouse habitat. Prioritize areas with high habitat probability for sage-grouse and high sagebrush cover (matrix cells 1C, 2C, 3C).
  • Encourage the protection of existing sage grouse habitat through appropriate land use planning and federal land sale policies. Steer development towards non-habitat (cells 1A, 2A, 3A) where habitat is unlikely to become suitable through management.

Threat: Cropland Conversion

Conversion of rangeland to cropland is considered a persistent and widespread threat in areas with higher precipitation and more productive soils across the eastern range, but not elsewhere. Extensive cultivation and fragmentation of native habitats have been associated with sage-grouse population declines and research indicates that Greater Sage-Grouse populations cannot persist in areas with < 25% landscape cover of sagebrush.

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Management strategies:

  • Secure conservation easements to maintain existing sagebrush grasslands and sage-grouse habitat and prevent conversion to tillage agriculture. Prioritize all areas supporting moderate-to-high sage-grouse habitat probability (matrix cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C) in locations where tillage risk is elevated (use the Sage-Grouse Initiative Cultivation Risk layer as a guide).
  • Secure term leases (e.g., 30 years) to maintain existing sagebrush grasslands and sage-grouse habitat and prevent conversion to tillage agriculture as a secondary strategy. Prioritize all areas supporting moderate-to-high sage-grouse habitat probability (cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C) especially in locations where tillage risk is elevated (see Cultivation Risk layer).
  • Offer alternatives to farming on expired USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) lands through federal and state programs. Prioritize lands in and around intact habitats (cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C).
  • Encourage enrollment in CRP to return tilled lands to perennial plant communities supporting mixtures of grasses, forbs, and sagebrush where there are benefits to sage-grouse. Prioritize lands in and around intact habitats (cells 1B, 1C, 2B, 2C, 3B, 3C).

Threat: Climate Change

Where climate change effects are expected to be minimal, the logical approach is to use best management practices to build resilience into sagebrush ecosystems. Maintaining and restoring habitat, actions to facilitate species of interest, and an increased emphasis on managing other threats, such as nonnative invasives, improper grazing, and fire, are key components of building resilience.

As climate change progresses and temperatures increase, the frequency and magnitude of drought is expected to increase. Implementing measures to reduce the interacting negative effects of habitat loss and climate change and facilitate recovery from drought will become increasingly important. Drought adaptation measures may include changes in land uses such as a reduction in livestock stocking rates. An increased emphasis on EDRR to nonnative invasive plants may be needed as climate suitability for these species is likely to increase in many areas. Also, habitat modifications such as creating and protecting migration corridors in fragmented landscapes may be necessary to facilitate persistence of sage-grouse and other species that use sagebrush habitats.

Management strategies:

  • Where effects of climate change and its interactions with stressors are expected to be relatively small and knowledge and capacity high, continue to use best management practices.
  • Where climate change and stress interactions are expected to be severe, proactive management such as assisted migration may be necessary to facilitate transition to a new site potential.
  • Practice drought adaption measures such as reduced grazing during droughts, conservation actions to facilitate species persistence, and seeding and transplanting techniques proven to work during drought.
  • Use species and ecotypes for seeding and out-planting that are adapted to both site conditions and drought, and resilient to episodic drought where projections indicate long-term climate change.
  • Monitor transition zones and edges between climatic regimes. Plant community shifts that affect management decisions often occur between Major Land Resource Areas or Ecoregions.


Next explore the Case Studies section.