Anatomy of a Climate Tool

A western juniper tree (right foreground) overlooks a sagebrush rangeland that transitions to juniper woodland in the distance. “Many of the juniper in the photo are less than about 140 years old,” says Dustin Johnson of OSU Extension in Burns. “The historical landscape would have looked much different, with fewer trees and a far greater expanse of sagebrush on the landscape.” (Photo: Stephen Ward)
A western juniper tree (right foreground) overlooks a sagebrush rangeland that transitions to juniper woodland in the distance.  (Photo: Stephen Ward)

CLIMATE-CHANGE PROJECTIONS can help land managers think strategically about the future. But when range ecologists, wildlife biologists and weed coordinators in Eastern Oregon consider their own agency’s swath of sagebrush, how can they be confident of their management decisions as conditions change? How can climate modelers build better tools to guide them in their work? What future climate-change information would be most relevant to their decision-making?

These are the questions driving an investigation by Oregon State University researcher Dominique Bachelet and undergraduate student Melanie Brown. Bachelet, an associate professor of bioengineering and senior climate-change scientist at Corvallis-based Conservation Biology Institute (CBI), and Brown, a natural resource management major in the College of Forestry, surveyed land managers in sagebrush country to create a blueprint for a practical, nimble, accessible computer tool for helping manage fires, protect wildlife, reseed vegetation and control invasives in a shifting landscape. A grant from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) funded the work. Terra’s Lee Sherman sat down with them recently to talk about the project.

TERRA: How did your project get off the ground?

Dominique Bachelet
Dominique Bachelet

Dominique Bachelet: It all started at the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute conference last year in Portland. I was sitting next to Louisa Evers from the BLM. And she was saying, “Presentations and publications are great, but sagebrush managers can’t really use this.” And I said, “Well, what is it that they could use?” And she answered, “Well, why don’t you ask them.” So I went back to Corvallis and said to Melanie: “Compile a bibliography and build your knowledge of the sagebrush issues. Once you’re comfortable with that knowledge, you can contact managers and ask them questions to help design better tools for them.”

Melanie Brown
Melanie Brown

Melanie Brown: I’m from the East Coast, so I had never dealt with sagebrush in my life. It was a huge learning curve, reviewing the literature on sagebrush and all the species in the sagebrush ecosystem, including the sage grouse, which is an obligate species — it can’t live anywhere else. I learned about a multitude of threats, like invasive weeds that increase fine-fuel loads and feed the fire regimes we’ve been seeing east of the Cascades. It was summer when I was doing the literature review. The whole time, the news was flashing huge wildfires. So I was sitting at Valley Library or at CBI, reading, and there was a haze of smoke in the air. I was starting to really make the connection between the sagebrush and the wildfires that are ever-expanding because of cheat grass and medusahead and ventenata. Then I drove out to Boise for the Public Lands Foundation annual conference, and it was smoke everywhere. While we were there, we were on a tour bus with some fire-management specialists when all of a sudden, they were on their walkie-talkies because they saw a fire off in the distance, smoke rising over the hill. They were telling us, “There’s no fire season anymore; the fires are just year-round.”

Bachelet: And, of course, there is the political issue of the sage grouse being considered for the endangered-species list. If it were listed, restrictions on land use would be dramatic. BLM also sells grazing and resource extraction leases, which are sources of revenue. Limiting those would affect funding for land-management activities. So pressures on land managers are amazingly complicated.

Brown: After the literature review, we sent an online survey to 15 BLM weed coordinators — people who deal with invasive plant species. The response rate was pretty sobering. I tried email, but nobody got back to me. So I started making phone calls. And everybody was just so willing to talk. The survey expanded to 30 managers, from weed coordinators to biologists, range ecologists, ESR managers (Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation), people who work on REAs (Rapid Ecological Assessments) and monitoring plans. The interviews were all anonymous, so the subjects could speak freely. They all know that climate change is something they need to be dealing with. But they don’t have access to useful tools. Sometimes it’s because existing models don’t match their needs. Often, their Internet browser, such as Internet Explorer, doesn’t support all the tools’ capabilities. Many managers told me they couldn’t even open some of the tools I showed them.

Western landscape with barn (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)
Western landscape with barn (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)

Bachelet: CBI has developed a mapping and analysis platform called that includes hundreds of spatial datasets. For the project, we set up a special group for the sagebrush managers where they could explore datasets and give feedback. Is the information adequate or incomplete? Is it current or does it need updating?

Brown: We had them look at eight existing climate tools and pick them apart, everything from color to scale to axis increment size to the climate models used within the tool itself — the historical timescale versus the projected timescale.

TERRA: Climate scientists are always asking: How can we convey our findings in a way that people can digest them and use them, make the science practical? What did you learn about that?

Bachelet: Melanie’s surveys indicate that 30-year average projections of potential change aren’t that useful to people working in the field who need short-term information. Most land managers have a healthy dose of skepticism about the reliability of projections, anyway, which is good because uncertainty is high and model projections are probably conservative. There are some who do use climate projections to write plans and design triage for restoration or land use. But most of them want information that falls somewhere between weather forecasts and climate projections, which makes sense. They depend on annual and seasonal variations for seeding and planting just like farmers do. Tools for forecasting the best times for planting, seeding, harvesting and irrigating do exist for farmers, but the managers we talked to do not seem to use them.

TERRA: So what’s needed to fill the tool gap? 

Bachelet: At CBI, Tim Sheehan, who is also a Ph.D. student at Oregon State, is working on a decision-support tool that overlays spatial datasets. You can add a set of rules that weight each and every one of them in order of importance. Here’s the sagebrush extent. Here are the different soil types — this soil’s really tough and hard, this soil can hold a lot of moisture. Here’s topography. Here’s grazing intensity. And then by association, he creates polygons that describe the landscape with unique combinations of these interacting factors. So one can actually start looking at the landscape and see that some areas are in such dire straits that they might be sacrificed for resource extraction. Other places may have the highest density of intact sage grouse habitat. Let’s protect it. Let’s consider giving incentives to the landowner, if it’s privately owned, so that they protect this area.

Brown: Pretty much all the managers I talk to do seeding for restoration, whether it be to combat invasives or to reseed the sagebrush after a fire or to do emergency stabilization. For the long term, it comes down to this: What kinds of seeds do they want to plant? What species do they want to choose? Do they want to choose drought-resistant species because the climate is getting warmer and drier and summers getting longer? Do they want to forget species adapted to cool weather, like C3 perennial ryegrass species, those that need the snow and a cool growing period? The people who make the decisions need to feel confident that the climate tool they have access to is reliable at the temporal and spatial scale at which they work.

Bachelet: One thing is certain: Managers are more interested in impacts than absolute change. This is a key finding of our study. Information on impacts — drought, flooding, fire, plant migration, habitat shifts, carbon sequestration potential, water quality — has not been as widely available and centralized as climate projections have been, providing carbon-emission levels, temperature change, rising sea levels, or precipitation patterns. Climate-impacts scientists need to coordinate and produce the same packaged range of projections that climate modelers have done for the last 25 years. Effective tools to deliver the results from impact models have not been built yet.

TERRA: What sets your emerging tool apart from other tools out there?

Bachelet: Transparency. You can see how an answer is obtained. We tried to put as much documentation in the decision support as we could. You can see exactly the spatial layers we are using to answer a particular question. And flexibility. If something doesn’t make sense or something is not useful to whomever it is asking the question, we can change it.

Lizard on rock (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)
Flowering cactus (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)

Brown: And tailored. I think especially for these land managers, these new tools we are working on designing are going to be specifically tailored toward land managers, if not specifically sagebrush land managers, with a temporal and spatial scale relevant to them and with specific variables that land managers can use




“What Will the Impacts Be?”

Sagebrush managers voice climate-change concerns

Climate scientist Dominique Bachelet says climate-change projections can help land managers design plans and, above all, understand and anticipate impacts on the lands they manage. “They want to know the impacts on their system of concern, to be able to prioritize, to triage,” says Bachelet. “We can build ‘decision-support tools’ specifically for these managers.”

Here are a few of the comments and insights from sagebrush managers who participated in a Bureau of Land Management-funded project to design better modeling tools:

Desert raptor (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)
Desert raptor (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)

Plant Patterns. “When you start talking about climate change, I start thinking about how climate change is going to impact the current vegetation that we have on site. What’s the climate pattern going to be? Is it going to be hotter and drier? Cooler and wetter? Are we going to see shifts in when we start getting our precipitation? Will this shift from a springtime event to a monsoonal summer event? And how is that going to impact our current vegetation state? Will we start seeing our vegetation moving in a northern pattern? Will we start getting changes in vegetation from what we’ve historically seen, such as invasives?”

Bird in nest (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)
Bird in nest (Watercolor by Dominique Bachelet)

Wild Weather. “One thing that is a challenge for me observing the weather over the last few years is the day-to-day variability. We’ve been seeing very strange day-to-day temperature swings. For instance, last November we had a cold snap with record-breaking lows for almost a week right after we received a record-breaking snowfall. And then it got warm up to about 60 degrees maybe two weeks later. It would be helpful if there is any way for us to understand when we’ll be seeing these wild temperature swings in the future.”

Looking Long-Term. “From a planning standpoint we have an RMP (resource management plan) large-scale land use planning document. It’s our larger document that we base all of our other documents off of. That would be where some of these tools could be useful because it’s a long-term plan. Some of the projects we’re looking at go 10 to 20 years, and recently we have needed to analyze climate. These longer projections would be helpful for the longer-term projects.”

Political Pressure. “To me the problem is that some of this stuff is still a guess. It’s still not 100 percent sure that this will be the scenario that we will see. But it’s the best guess. It’s the information and best science that you have available to work with at the time. We get a lot of political pressure to do or not to do. There are political opinions that make it challenging and our NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) has become messy and stagnant because of this. So instead of having a short, concise document we end up with long and messy, multiple-alternative-scenario documents. We try to use these kinds of tools to show that what we’re trying to do on the ground is supported by the best information we have available.”

Too Many Tools. “We’re supposed to be looking at climate change when we do our NEPA analysis for any projects. We never know what climate models to use because there are so many of them. Even if we know which ones to use we don’t have the data in-house, and then we don’t have a consolidated place that tells us how the climate variables are going to affect our resources of concern.”

Impact Insights. “A main concern or question I have is about the final impacts. What are they going to be? What will be the seasonality and the amounts of moisture? What’s going to happen and how are climate variables going to impact the communities that existed historically? Where is the climate headed, and what is the plant community response to it going to be?”

Selecting for Survival. “We would need to know if we’re in an area where plants may not exist because the climate’s getting hotter and drier. This is where a tool could be useful to predict what the climate change would be for a specific area. This would help us identify areas where we might have more durable treatments on the ground or help us make selections for different types of plant cultivars that would be adapted to drought, so that they can survive in those areas.”

Juniper Judgments. “Understanding what climate conditions promote the invasion or spreading of juniper would be really helpful. At what elevation would this spreading be worse? Is it elevation, is it aspect, is it general climate trend?”

Compare and Correlate. “The vegetation class (in the model) is quite interesting. It’s hard to tell how accurate it is, but the trend itself is interesting. It’s interesting to look at the past dates and then see where the shrubs have dropped off. It is interesting to compare across all the graphs (temperature max and min, and precipitation). Makes me feel better about what I’m seeing in the field and then correlate it back to the graphs in the tool.”

Interesting Involvement. “I appreciate being involved, and I think some of these climate tools are interesting. I can see good use in some of them. Thanks for pointing me to them.”