Authored by L.M. Ellsworth; Published 2016
Recent policy has focused on prevention of wildfire in the sagebrush steppe in an effort to protect habitat for the greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). Historically, fire return intervals in Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis) ecosystems were 50–100 yr or more, but invasive species, climate change, and a legacy of intensive grazing practices have led to degraded rangeland condition, altered fire regimes and fire effects, and declines in sagebrush cover. Little is known about the long-term impacts of fire in this ecosystem in areas where grazing pressure has been removed, few invasive species exist, and fire return intervals are maintained. In this study, we quantified vegetation composition prior to prescribed burning, 1 year following fire, and 17 years after fire in a native-dominated Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystem at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, Oregon, United States. Seventeen years following fire, the ecosystem was dominated by native herbaceous vegetation, with 8.3% cover of broad-leaved forbs and bunchgrasses in the understory, compared to just 3.8% cover of native herbaceous vegetation in unburned controls. Invasive annual grass cover ranged from 0.2% to 8.4% across all treatments and years (P = 0.56). One year following fire, the distance from a randomly located point and the nearest mature sagebrush was 16.6 m, but by 17 years after the fire, that distance had decreased to 2.5 m. Seventeen years after fires, shrub cover was 0.4–4% in burned plots compared to 13–24% in unburned controls. Collectively, these data demonstrate that good condition ungrazed Wyoming big sagebrush plant communities exhibited resilience following fire and maintained a native-dominated mosaic of shrubs, bunchgrasses, and forbs. Further, unburned control plots were dominated by woody vegetation and exhibited losses in herbaceous understory, possibly indicating that they are outside of their natural fire return interval. Our results illustrate that management of all habitat components, including natural disturbance and a mosaic of successional stages, is important for persistent resilience and that suppression of all fires in the sagebrush steppe may create long-term losses of heterogeneity in good condition Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystems.