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

Davies K. W., J. D. Bates, C. S. Boyd and A. M. Nafus . 2014. International Journal of Wildland Fire


Fire has largely been excluded from many mountain big sagebrush communities. Managers are reluctant to reintroduce fire, especially in 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 is needed. We compared burned to unburned plots at six sites in Oregon. Soil nutrient availability generally increased with burning. Plant diversity increased with burning in the first post-burn year, but decreased by the third post-burn year. Burning altered the arthropod community, which included doubling the density of arthropods in the first post-burn year. Some arthropod Orders increased and others decreased with burning. For example, Araneae were 1.7- and 1.8-fold less and Hemiptera were 6.6- and 2.1-fold greater in the burn compared with the control in 2008 and 2009. Our results provide evidence that burning can create spatial and temporal heterogeneity in 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 effects other than the encroachment of conifers in these communities.

Key Words

Artemisia tridentata, biodiversity, disturbance, fire management, spatial heterogeneity.