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Researchers propose integrating history and science to restore biodiversity

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension researchers study Native American’s past vegetation management in the Great Basin to find answers for today

RENO, Nev. – Natural Resources Specialist Kent McAdoo recently studied how Native Americans used fire to maintain and modify the Great Basin centuries ago. He suggests that we now take these principles and combine them with modern science to actively manage vegetation in ways that maintain or enhance ecosystem integrity in the Great Basin today.

“The Great Basin aboriginals were active instead of reactive in their management,” McAdoo, an associate professor at University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, said. “We need to learn from the past to make the Great Basin’s vegetation more resistant to invasive species and resilient after a disturbance, such as wildfire. Active management reduces the spread of undesirable invasive weeds and enhances conditions for desirable native species.”

McAdoo, along with Humboldt County Extension Educator Brad Schultz and Range/Riparian Specialist Sherman Swanson, recently published their findings in the journal “Rangeland Ecology & Management.” In their article, the team indicated that the aboriginals “burned vegetation to modify plant and animal communities for human benefit and to increase productivity.”

They reported that Native Americans practiced regular use of fire for many purposes, including increasing the availability of desired plants, maintaining habitats for animals used as food, and driving game during hunts. According to many literature sources, this ‘‘active management’’ by Native Americans was widespread, significant and more common than lightning-caused fires. Their frequent use of fire resulted in mosaic vegetation patterns that affected the behavior of ‘‘natural fires.’’ The combination of lightning-caused and man-made fires may have strongly influenced the pre-Euro-American settlement vegetation of the Great Basin. McAdoo and his co-authors maintain that, based on this historic precedent, predicted climate change and especially current conditions, such as too much flammable fuel and invasive weeds, contemporary active management of Great Basin vegetation is absolutely necessary.

“We can’t use prescribed fire in many areas now, as we already have an unprecedented buildup of fuel and too much weed invasion, especially in lower-elevation big sagebrush areas,” McAdoo said. “But we can still follow the aboriginal precedent of active management.”

In places where fire cannot be used, mechanical, herbicidal and/or biological alternatives might be appropriate measures. Sometimes seeding or directly planting desirable species may also be necessary. Restoration measures should be scientifically based and tailored to achieve functional plant communities in specific sites.

Properly planned active management would decrease the amount of fuel for lightning fires, ensure ecological processes, and benefit multiple uses on a landscape scale. McAdoo also pointed out that active vegetation management will be critical in restoring habitat for sagebrush-dependent wildlife species, including the greater sage-grouse that is a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

“Contemporary challenges require that we learn from the past and carefully adapt best management practices to restore the resilience and natural diversity of Great Basin vegetation,” McAdoo said.

The study, “Aboriginal Precedent for Active Management of Sagebrush-Perennial Grass Communities in the Great Basin,” was published in “Rangeland Ecology & Management” and can be found at

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is the College of the University of Nevada, Reno that is engaged in every Nevada county, presenting research-based knowledge to address critical community needs. It is a county-state-federal partnership providing practical education to people, businesses and communities. For more information on its programs, visit

Founded in 1874 as Nevada’s land-grant university, the University of Nevada, Reno ranks in the top tier of best national universities. With nearly 19,000 students, the University is driven to contribute a culture of student success, world-improving research and outreach that enhances communities and business. Part of the Nevada System of Higher Education, the University has the system’s largest research program and is home to the state’s medical school. With outreach and education programs in all Nevada counties and home to one of the largest study-abroad consortiums, the University extends across the state and around the world. For more information, visit


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