National Wildfire crisis strategy: Protecting at-risk species in Nevada

A bird’s eye view of the diverse, contrasting landscapes and wildlife habitat across the state of Nevada reveals wild rugged terrain – deep canyons, snowy mountaintops, dry riverbeds, and seemingly endless miles of sagebrush.

More than 24-at risk wildlife species call Nevada’s Sierra and Elko Fronts home, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, California spotted owl, greater sage-grouse, Paiute cutthroat trout, and the monarch butterfly, according to Kris Boatner, wildlife program manager for Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

Many other species like mule deer, elk, mountain lion, beaver, prairie falcons, pinyon jays, rattlesnakes and bumble bees also live and thrive across Nevada.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service designated the Sierra and Elko Fronts as one of 21 high-risk landscapes in the western U.S. as part of the National Wildfire Crisis Strategy.

A $57 million investment into these landscapes seeks to protect the area’s wildlife habitat, local communities, and vital watersheds. The effort aims to create fire-resilient forests and rangelands while protecting utility, energy, and mining facilities along with transportation corridors and recreation areas.

The areas encompass roughly 3.4 million acres of National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management lands near the metropolitan areas of Reno, Sparks, Carson City, and Elko, including 30 other rural communities and a small portion of eastern California.

Around 1.3 million acres of the landscapes are located on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest which is the largest national forest in the lower 48 states.

“Key actions to protect wildlife in many cases are the same as those implemented to reduce the risk of wildfire,” Boatner said. “It is critically important that we manage these landscapes now before they are lost to large-scale wildfire.”

In the last ten years, wildfires have burned nearly 146,000 acres across the Sierra and Elko Fronts and 420,000 acres of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest lands, according to Tony Bush, assistant forest wildlife biologist for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

“While our primary focus is on keeping communities safe, species protection is also at the forefront and we’re putting a lot of emphasis on creating and protecting a diverse set of healthy forest and habitat conditions,” said Duncan Leao, acting priority landscape coordinator for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “Our wildfire prevention treatments target multiple species across the diverse ecological regions on the Sierra and Elko Fronts.”

These efforts focus on fuel breaks and landscape treatments including mechanical thinning and mastication, where vegetation is ground up or shredded to increase the speed of decomposition. Target grazing for fine fuels reduction, manual and chemical treatments for non-native annuals and noxious weeds, and prescribed fire are also being used.

When high intensity fires burn through a landscape, food sources like insects, seeds, forage, and prey are lost. Wildlife is left disconnected to corridors that connect their habitat. The charred soil may then become overrun with invasive grasses and soil erosion may contaminate water sources limiting future resources for wildlife habitat.

“We care about the habitat first – and if we have the habitat, we can have the species,” Boatner said. “Species have specific requirements in habitats they need to survive, once those habitats are gone or severely fragmented, there is nowhere left for species to live.”

Research within sage-grouse habitat in northwestern Nevada and eastern California shows a 40 percent reduction in adult survival and a 79 percent reduction in nest survival within areas impacted by wildfires, according to Boatner.

Populations of Sierra Nevada California spotted owls have dwindled due to wildfire impacts to their habitat to the extent that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed it be categorized as a threatened species.

While wildfire is of great concern for at-risk species, it also negatively impacts otherwise healthy populations.

Since the mid-1980s, mule deer numbers have declined throughout Nevada, due in part to wildfire impacts to winter ranges. Wildfires reduce native vegetation, and invasive grasses and weeds that are inedible to mule deer have grown in their place. The loss of pinyon-juniper woodlands to wildfires has also impacted available habitat for pinyon jays, a species whose numbers have declined significantly.

The management of these landscapes can often be a complex balancing act. Wildlife biologists must consider the needs of multiple species. While pinyon-juniper is crucial to pinyon jays, overgrowth can impact other animal populations.

“The removal of encroaching pinyon-juniper from the sagebrush interface can improve and expand suitable habitat for sage-grouse and pygmy rabbit,” said Boatner. “Treatment of annual invasive grasses can help to restore native habitats. Understory thinning operations in conifer forests can help regenerate shade-intolerant tree species and reduce the risk of large-scale tree mortality from insects or disease. All these actions also serve to reduce wildfire risk.”

Thinning, followed by prescribed fire, is creating healthy habitats for pollinators and flowering plants because understory plants – at ground level – then have the space to thrive and reproduce, added Leao.

“Pollinators such as birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles and other small mammals are keystone species that are necessary for sustaining other plant and animal species and promote forest health and diverse wildlife habitats,” he said. “When we support one species in an area, we help all the species in that area.”

Keystone species are wildlife on which other species largely depend. So much so that if that species were removed, the ecosystem would change dramatically.

The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest is currently working within and across forest boundaries with state, federal, and Tribal partners to treat up to 300,000 acres of National Forest System lands within the Sierra and Elko Fronts Landscape over the next 10 years.

To date, 30 wildfire prevention projects are underway across 1.4 million acres in the Sierra and Elko Fronts and projects have been completed on 75,000 acres.

The USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Landscape projects currently address 137 high-risk areas in the western United States. More than $930 million will be invested across 26.7 million acres to mitigate wildfire risk to nearly 200 communities nationwide. Wildfire crisis strategy investments are funded through the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act.