Strengthening Ecosystems of the West
The focus of this project is to examine the role and characteristics of sagebrush, particularly sage steppe, throughout Lava Lake land and livestock, located just southeast of Sun Valley. The team is looking to develop effective strategies for sustaining and strengthening ecosystems of the West.
Thirty-one federally listed threatened or endangered species depend on this vegetation, and it is a crucial food source for domestic grazing animals. Lava Lake Ranch, a private organic livestock company, relies on sage steppe as an important component of its sheep operation. The diversity of grasses and flowers contributes to the flavor of the meat.
Some serious issues face this iconic ecosystem of the West, including invasive species, varying fire fuels and habitat fragmentation. Livestock grazing can negatively impact this plant community. Lava Lake has partnered with a team of College of Natural Resources (CNR) scientists to ensure that doesn’t happen. The team will assist Lava Lake in determining the ecological impacts of its current grazing strategies and explore grazing applications that enhance plants and animals inhabiting ranch lands. Specifically, researchers will assess how different grazing intensities in sage steppe ecosystems will influence the distribution of vegetation, as well as insect and bird communities.
“Potentially, the results of this three-year study will positively impact grazing management decisions on many ranches in the sage steppe ecosystem,” said Karen Launchbaugh, CNR rangeland ecology and management associate professor and department head.
Since the project began, the research team has made several recommendations that have helped Lava Lake Ranch improve streams and riparian areas, which are the fastest to grow and recover. With guidance from the CNR team, land managers have also applied several traditional conservation approaches such as conservation easements, monitoring techniques and restoration methods. Stevens says their initial advice led to widespread improvements across Lava Lake territory.
Lava Lake Ranch is also reaching out to community members, neighboring private land owners, and ranchers for a collaborative approach to its conservation efforts. By reaching out and building a consensus with neighbors, Lava Lake Ranch hopes to optimize its conservation efforts.
“We want to be part of a larger community doing this work,” said Stevens. “Our end goal is protecting the abundant wildlife species that inhabit the Pioneer Mountains and Craters of the Moon landscapes, and to do that, we need to be a part of a large network of partners.”
Karen Launchbaugh, CNR rangeland ecology and management associate professor and is leading this project along with Jim Peek, Mike Scott, Maurice Hornocker and CNR faculty and graduate students.