Ecological effects of spring and fall prescribed burning on basin big sagebrush : Idaho fescue--bluebunch wheatgrass communities Public Deposited


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  • The vegetation response of spring and fall prescribed fires in basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata Nutt.)/Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis Elmer)--bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum Pursh. (Scribn. & Smith)) communities was measured at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in eastern Oregon. Objectives of the study were to quantify fuel loads, environmental conditions, fire behavior and vegetation response corresponding to these two fire treatments. Pretreatment fuel loads in the experimental units ranged from 5 to 12 Mg/ha, with the fall treatment units averaging 10.5 Mg/ha, and the spring units averaging 6.2 Mg/ha. Both treatments contained large amounts (> 3 Mg/ha) of herbaceous fuels. Moisture content of grass and herb fuels were significantly greater in the spring burned units. This is believed to be largely responsible for the less severe fire behavior observed in the spring burn treatment. Flame lengths averaged 4.2 m in fall burns, compared to a mean of 1.7 m in the spring plots. Similarly, rate of spread was significantly greater in the fall units, averaging 1.6 m/s, compared to 0.2 m/s in the spring treatment. Fireline Intensity was seven times greater, and total energy release was twice was great in the fall burns. Neither burn treatment resulted in significant mortality of bluebunch wheatgrass, but fall burning did cause significant mortality of Idaho fescue, where 20% of the population was killed. Fall burning stimulated tillering of bluebunch wheatgrass, as the average basal area increased both one and two years following burning. Average basal area per plant of Idaho fescue was reduced by 23% the first year following fall burning; however plants recovered to 90% of their preburn size by the second post-fire year. Spring burning resulted in no significant change in basal area of either species. Fall burning significantly reduced the number of flowering culms on bluebunch wheatgrass plants the first post-fire year (from 36 to 12 per plant); however, by the second post-fire year, number of flowering culms was significantly greater than either pre-burn or control levels (59/plant). Similarly, fall burning of Idaho fescue averaged 60% more flowering culms per plant as adjacent controls (11 compared to 7/plant). Spring burning reduced flowering of both species the first year following burning. Both burn treatments reduced the frequency of annual grasses, while causing no change in frequency of perennial grasses. Annual forbs increased in abundance following both burn treatments. Fire resulted in replacement of exotic annual grasses with annual forb species. Dominant perennial forbs responded variably in both burn treatments, as well as control plots. Frequency of sagebrush increased significantly in both spring and control experimental units in 1989 (one year after spring burning), while fall burns (two years posttreatment) demonstrated no such increase. Apparently, factors relating to the greater fire severity (e.g. consumption, total energy) in the fall burns reduced the rate and degree of reinvasion by sagebrush in the fall burn plots. Densities of annual grasses and woody species were significantly reduced by both burn treatments. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.) density before burning averaged 446 and 552/m2 in fall and spring units, respectively, as compared to 10 and 85/m2, respectively, the first post-fire year. Big sagebrush was completely eliminated by the fall fire, while spring burning resulted in an 84% decrease in density. Density of western juniper (Juniperus occidentalls Hook.) was reduced 100% by both burn treatments. Species diversity, as measured by the Shannon-Weaver Index (H'), was reduced by fall burning from 2.69 before treatment to 2.53 the first year following burning , but increased to 2.81 second post-fire year. Control plots behaved similarly, although changes were not as great. Changes were most evident in terms of rare species, many of which were not present prior to burning. Spring burning resulted in an no change in species diversity the first year after burning, although, species richness increased from 34 to 41. Both burn treatments appeared effective at changing stand structure to that of a dominance by native perrenial grasses and forbs. The reduced competition from woody plants has, and presumably will continue to favor surviving herbaceous plants. Overall fire effects appear to fit into land management policy of the National Park Service in regard to maintaining wildlands in a pristine state. Specifically, both spring and fall burning reduced fuel hazard, and increased the relative abundance of native species, indicating that prescribed burning may be an effective land management tool for the National Park Service and others managing similar rangelands.
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