A conservation paradox in the Great Basin—Altering sagebrush landscapes with fuel breaks to reduce habitat loss from wildfire

Open-File Report 2018-1034
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service
By: , and 



Interactions between fire and nonnative, annual plant species (that is, “the grass/fire cycle”) represent one of the greatest threats to sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystems and associated wildlife, including the greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). In 2015, U.S. Department of the Interior called for a “science-based strategy to reduce the threat of large-scale rangeland fire to habitat for the greater sage-grouse and the sagebrush-steppe ecosystem.” An associated guidance document, the “Integrated Rangeland Fire Management Strategy Actionable Science Plan,” identified fuel breaks as high priority areas for scientific research. Fuel breaks are intended to reduce fire size and frequency, and potentially they can compartmentalize wildfire spatial distribution in a landscape. Fuel breaks are designed to reduce flame length, fireline intensity, and rates of fire spread in order to enhance firefighter access, improve response times, and provide safe and strategic anchor points for wildland fire-fighting activities. To accomplish these objectives, fuel breaks disrupt fuel continuity, reduce fuel accumulation, and (or) increase plants with high moisture content through the removal or modification of vegetation in strategically placed strips or blocks of land.

Fuel breaks are being newly constructed, enhanced, or proposed across large areas of the Great Basin to reduce wildfire risk and to protect remaining sagebrush ecosystems (including greater sage-grouse habitat). These projects are likely to result in thousands of linear miles of fuel breaks that will have direct ecological effects across hundreds of thousands of acres through habitat loss and conversion. These projects may also affect millions of acres indirectly because of edge effects and habitat fragmentation created by networks of fuel breaks. Hence, land managers are often faced with a potentially paradoxical situation: the need to substantially alter sagebrush habitats with fuel breaks to ultimately reduce a greater threat of their destruction from wildfire. However, there is relatively little published science that directly addresses the ability of fuel breaks to influence fire behavior in dryland landscapes or that addresses the potential ecological effects of the construction and maintenance of fuel breaks on sagebrush ecosystems and associated wildlife species.

This report is intended to provide an initial assessment of both the potential effectiveness of fuel breaks and their ecological costs and benefits. To provide this assessment, we examined prior studies on fuel breaks and other scientific evidence to address three crucial questions: (1) How effective are fuel breaks in reducing or slowing the spread of wildfire in arid and semi-arid shrubland ecosystems? (2) How do fuel breaks affect sagebrush plant communities? (3) What are the effects of fuel breaks on the greater sage-grouse, other sagebrush obligates, and sagebrush-associated wildlife species? We also provide an overview of recent federal policies and management directives aimed at protecting remaining sagebrush and greater sage-grouse habitat; describe the fuel conditions, fire behavior, and fire trends in the Great Basin; and suggest how scientific inquiry and management actions can improve our understanding of fuel breaks and their effects in sagebrush landscapes.

Suggested Citation

Shinneman, D.J., Aldridge, C.L., Coates, P.S., Germino, M.J., Pilliod, D.S., and Vaillant, N.M., 2018, A conservation paradox in the Great Basin—Altering sagebrush landscapes with fuel breaks to reduce habitat loss from wildfire: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018–1034, 70 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/ofr20181034.

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Fuel Breaks to Protect Greater Sage-Grouse Habitat—Policy, Management, and Science Directives
  • Question 1. How Effective Are Fuel Breaks in Reducing or Slowing the Spread of Wildfire in Arid and Semi-Arid Shrubland Ecosystems?
  • Question 2. How Do Fuel Breaks Affect Sagebrush Plant Communities?
  • Question 3. What Are the Effects of Fuel Breaks on Greater Sage-Grouse, Other Sagebrush Obligates, and Sagebrush-Associated Wildlife Species?
  • Conclusions and Recommendations
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Glossary
  • Appendixes 1—2
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title A conservation paradox in the Great Basin—Altering sagebrush landscapes with fuel breaks to reduce habitat loss from wildfire
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2018-1034
DOI 10.3133/ofr20181034
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description vi, 70 p.
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details