Quantifying ecological integrity of terrestrial systems to inform management of multiple-use public lands in the United States.
The concept of ecological integrity has been applied widely to management of aquatic systems, but still is considered by many to be too vague and difficult to quantify to be useful for managing terrestrial systems, particularly across broad areas. Extensive public lands in the western United States are managed for diverse uses such as timber harvest, livestock grazing, energy development, and wildlife conservation, some of which may degrade ecological integrity. We propose a method for assessing ecological integrity on multiple-use lands that identifies the components of integrity and levels in the ecological hierarchy where the assessment will focus, and considers existing policies and management objectives. Both natural reference and societally desired environmental conditions are relevant comparison points. We applied the method to evaluate the ecological integrity of shrublands in Nevada, yielding an assessment based on six indicators of ecosystem structure, function, and composition, including resource- and stressor-based indicators measured at multiple scales. Results varied spatially and among indicators. Invasive plant cover and surface development were highest in shrublands in northwest and southeast Nevada. Departure from reference conditions of shrubland area, composition, patch size, and connectivity was highest in central and northern Nevada. Results may inform efforts to control invasive species and restore shrublands on federal lands in Nevada. We suggest that ecological integrity assessments for multiple-use lands be grounded in existing policies and monitoring programs, incorporate resource- and stressor-based metrics, rely on publicly available data collected at multiple spatial scales, and quantify both natural reference and societally desired resource conditions.