Plant Invasions or Fire Policy: Which Has Altered Fire Behavior More in Tallgrass Prairie?
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Human behavior has rapidly evolved from fire-promoting to aggressively attempting to minimize its magnitude and variability. This global shift in human behavior has contributed to the adoption of strict policies that govern the purposeful and planned use of fire in ecosystem science and management. However, it remains unclear the extent to which modern-day prescribed fire policies are altering the potential magnitude and variation of fire behavior in scientific investigations and ecosystem management. Here, we modeled the theoretical historical range of variability (ROV) in fire behavior for the tallgrass prairie ecosystem of North America. We then compared sensitivities in the magnitude and variation in the historical ROV in fire behavior as a result of (1) policies governing prescribed fire and (2) woody and herbaceous plant invasions. Although considerably more attention has focused on changes in fire behavior as a result of biological invasions, our model demonstrates that contemporary fire management policies can meet or surpass these effects. Policies governing prescribed fire management in tallgrass prairie reduced the magnitude and variability of surface fire behavior more than tall fescue invasion and rivaled reductions in fire behavior from decades of Juniperus encroachment. Consequently, fire and its potential as a driver of ecosystem dynamics has been simplified in the study and management of this system, which may be contributing to misleading conclusions on the potential responses of many highly researched environmental priorities. We emphasize the need to study changes in fire dynamics as a function of both social and ecological drivers, in an effort to advance our basic understanding of the role of fire in nature and its potential usefulness in ecosystem management.
Keywordsanthropogenic change community assembly disturbance regime historical range of variability (ROV) environmental policy exotic species invasion ecosystem management global environmental change social-ecological system
Funds for this project were provided by the Joint Fire Science Program project #11-1-2-19. We thank Trenton Franz, Erica Smithwick, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful contributions that improved this manuscript.
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