Boise State researchers emphasize the importance of sagebrush on Idaho's ecosystem

Posted at 10:18 PM, Jul 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-25 00:18:34-04

BOISE — Researchers at Boise State University are studying the effects sagebrush has on the environment in the Great Basin, and how it might aid in preventing future wildfires.

Sagebrush is a native plant to the Great Basin, and a native plant here in Idaho, and those Boise State researchers say, as non-native plants like cheat grass begin to takeover landscapes, the chance for wildfire only goes up. What that means is, we need sagebrush.

Fire season once lasted only a few months out of the year, but it continues to get longer across the Western United States, but have you ever stopped to wonder why?

“There is an invasive plant called cheat grass that has introduced a new type of fire cycle into the sagebrush habitat,” said Trevor Caughlin, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Boise State University.

Hot and dry weather is a recipe for disaster when wildfire season rolls around, and another ingredient on that perfect fire climate list, is lack of sagebrush.

“Unfortunately, sagebrush is also increasingly threatened by wildfire and other disturbances,” said Caughlin.

As wildfires roar across the Great Basin, destroying native plants like sagebrush, invasive plants move in and change the fire cycle.

“Historically, we used to have fires, maybe on the order of several decades. And where these invasive plants have come in, we have a reduction in the fire cycle time to as low as every eight years in some places,” said Caughlin.

So Trevor and his lab studied the human impacts like fire and restoration on sagebrush, covering more than 200,000 square miles across the Great Basin.

“It actually includes the lowest elevation point, Badwater Basin, in the continental U.S., and the highest point, Mt. Whitney,” said Caughlin.

Ultimately, they found that wildfires had comparable impacts on sagebrush to the effects of variation in elevation, rainfall and temperature.

“That introduces this problem that sagebrush is disappearing across the Western U.S,” said Caughlin, and that is something he says emphasizes the threat that changing wildfire frequency poses to ecosystem health.

“The sagebrush on these hills are important for trapping water, so when it snows, the sagebrush make the water last in the soil for a little bit longer,” said Caughlin.

It’s a native plant that stabilizes soil and increases that soil moisture, which helps in preventing landslides and other disasters.

Some good news from the findings though, sagebrush is positively impacted by restoration, and the Bureau of Land Management, for years, has been working to re-seed sagebrush plants across the Great Basin.