Detecting shrub recovery in sagebrush steppe: Comparing Landsat-derived maps with field data on historical wildfires

Fire Ecology
By:  and 




The need for basic information on spatial distribution and abundance of plant species for research and management in semiarid ecosystems is frequently unmet. This need is particularly acute in the large areas impacted by megafires in sagebrush steppe ecosystems, which require frequently updated information about increases in exotic annual invaders or recovery of desirable perennials. Remote sensing provides one avenue for obtaining this information. We considered how a vegetation model based on Landsat satellite imagery (30 m pixel resolution; annual images from 1985 to 2018) known as the National Land Cover Database (NLCD) “Back-in-Time” fractional component time-series, compared with field-based vegetation measurements. The comparisons focused on detection thresholds of post-fire emergence of fire-intolerant Artemisia L. species, primarily A. tridentata Nutt. (big sagebrush). Sagebrushes are scarce after fire and their paucity over vast burn areas creates challenges for detection by remote sensing. Measurements were made extensively across the Great Basin, USA, on eight burn scars encompassing ~500 000 ha with 80 plots sampled, and intensively on a single 113 000 ha burned area where we sampled 1454 plots.


Estimates of sagebrush cover from the NLCD were, as a mean, 6.5% greater than field-based estimates, and variance around this mean was high. The contrast between sagebrush cover measurements in field data and NLCD data in burned landscapes was considerable given that maximum cover values of sagebrush were ~35% in the field. It took approximately four to six years after the fire for NLCD to detect consistent, reliable signs of sagebrush recovery, and sagebrush cover estimated by NLCD ranged from 3 to 13% (equating to 0 to 7% in field estimates) at these times. The stabilization of cover and presence four to six years after fire contrasted with previous field-based studies that observed fluctuations over longer time periods.


While results of this study indicated that further improvement of remote sensing applications would be necessary to assess initial sagebrush recovery patterns, they also showed that Landsat satellite imagery detects the influence of burns and that the NLCD data tend to show faster rates of recovery relative to field observations.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Detecting shrub recovery in sagebrush steppe: Comparing Landsat-derived maps with field data on historical wildfires
Series title Fire Ecology
DOI 10.1186/s42408-021-00091-7
Volume 17
Issue 5
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Springer
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description 11 p.
Country United States
State Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, Utah
Other Geospatial Sagebrush steppe of the Great Basin
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