Acclaimed researcher works to improve sage brush habitat
By MITCH LIES
BURNS, Ore. -- Agricultural Research Service rangeland scientist Kirk Davies is at home in the sagebrush steppe of southeastern Oregon.
Other than the years he spent at Oregon State University in Corvallis, the 32-year-old adjunct professor has spent his entire life in the remote desert.
Davies was raised about an hour's drive from the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center in Burns, where he now works.
In 1999, while an undergraduate, he started working at the center as a summer technician. Today he is a celebrated rangeland scientist.
Davies this year won the Society for Range Management's Outstanding Young Range Professional Award. The award is given annually to a scientist under the age of 40 who exhibits superior performance and leadership in rangeland science.
Davies also previously received the Outstanding Paper Award from the Weed Science Society of America for work on weed prevention. A research paper on the interaction between managed and natural disturbance in plant communities was accepted for publication in Ecological Applications, an international journal on applied ecology.
Davies' work in sagebrush steppe has become increasingly important in recent years as state and federal agencies and private landowners work to protect habitat for the sage grouse.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March of this year determined the sage grouse warranted protection under the Endangered Species Act, but didn't list the bird because other species were deemed in greater need of protection.
Environmental groups in June filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Idaho, seeking to force a listing.
Research conducted by Davies often finds its way into management techniques used by federal land managers, who manage the sagebrush steppe that the sage grouse depends on for its habitat.
The research typically starts with a theory, he said.
For example, scientists have theorized that grazing is beneficial to sagebrush that falls prey to fire.
Initial findings show the theory is correct.
"Our research showed that over the long term, excluding grazing could be very devastating to the plant community," Davies said. "We saw that when it burned, where it had been grazed versus where it had seven years without grazing, the ungrazed burned area went to cheatgrass and the other one really didn't have that problem."
Davies subsequently "dove into it deeper and really looked at the numbers."
"There is about threefold more amount of fuel sitting on top of the perennial bunch grasses when they haven't been grazed," he said.
Davies in the near future plans to vary the experiment: in one case, going four years without grazing before burning; in another, going two years.
"We're trying to see what kind of window we're looking at," Davies said. "Does it matter if you just don't graze one year? Probably not. But what happens two, three, four years down the road if you really start building up the dry fuel on the crown of the plant?"
Davies also is looking into planting protective barriers for weed control to slow infestations of perennial bunch grasses.
He is trying to determine if there are benefits in burning conifers that encroach on sage brush plant communities.
"If you burn them, you are bound to burn some sagebrush and reduce some sage grouse habitat in the short term," he said. "But in the long term, by burning the conifers out of the sagebrush, you can have that habitat back in the future in a much larger area."
Davies said he hopes the federal government doesn't list the sage grouse, primarily because doing so would limit his ability to improve its habitat.
"My concern with listing it would be that it would limit stuff we could do to save them," he said. "There are a lot of things we can do that in the short term will reduce some of their habitat but in the long term will improve it."