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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Research Project: Restoring and Managing Great Basin Ecosystems

Location: Range and Meadow Forage Management Research

Title: Is fire exclusion in mountain big sagebrush communities prudent? Soil nutrient, plant diversity, and arthropod response to burning

item Davies, Kirk
item Bates, Jonathan
item Boyd, Chad
item Nafus, Aleta -

Submitted to: International Journal of Wildland Fire
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: December 14, 2013
Publication Date: N/A

Interpretive Summary: Fire has largely been excluded from many high elevation sagebrush communities because of current management policies. Fire, however, may be important for promoting heterogeneity in these communities. We evaluated the influence of fire on soil nutrients, arthropods, and plant diversity at five sites. Fire created spatial and temporal heterogeneity in soil nutrients, arthropods, and plant diversity. This research suggests that fire exclusion may have some negative impacts and that management may need to include infrequent fire in high elevation sagebrush communities.

Technical Abstract: Fire has largely been excluded from many mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt. ssp. vaseyana (Rydb.) Beetle) communities. Land and wildlife managers are especially reluctant to reintroduce fire in mountain big sagebrush plant communities, especially those communities without significant conifer encroachment, because of the decline in sagebrush-associated wildlife. Given this management direction, a better understanding of fire exclusion and burning effects are needed. We compared prescribed burned to unburned control plots at six sites on the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Oregon. Burning generally increased soil nutrient availability, though not all measured soil nutrient concentrations varied between the burn and control plots. Plant diversity initially increased with burning, but then decreased. Burning altered the arthropod community, which included doubling the density of arthropods the first year after treatment. Some arthropod Orders increased and others decreased with burning. For example, Araneae (spiders) were 1.7- and 1.8-fold less and Hemiptera (true bugs) were 6.6- and 2.1-fold greater in the burn compared to the control in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Our results provide evidence that burning can create spatial and temporal heterogeneity in mountain big sagebrush communities and thus, it is an important component of the ecosystem. We suggest that management plans for many mountain big sagebrush communities may need to include infrequent burning. At the very least managers should be aware that fire exclusion has some potentially negative impacts other than the encroachment of conifers in these communities.

Last Modified: 4/15/2014
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