Fire, livestock grazing, topography, and precipitation affect occurrence and prevalence of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in the central Great Basin, USA

  • Matthew A. WilliamsonEmail author
  • Erica Fleishman
  • Ralph C. Mac Nally
  • Jeanne C. Chambers
  • Bethany A. Bradley
  • David S. Dobkin
  • David I. Board
  • Frank A. Fogarty
  • Ned Horning
  • Matthias Leu
  • Martha Wohlfeil Zillig
Original Paper


Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) has increased the extent and frequency of fire and negatively affected native plant and animal species across the Intermountain West (USA). However, the strengths of association between cheatgrass occurrence or abundance and fire, livestock grazing, and precipitation are not well understood. We used 14 years of data from 417 sites across 10,000 km2 in the central Great Basin to assess the effects of the foregoing predictors on cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence (i.e., given occurrence, the proportion of measurements in which the species was detected). We implemented hierarchical Bayesian models and considered covariates for which > 0.90 or < 0.10 of the posterior predictive mass for the regression coefficient ≥ 0 as strongly associated with the response variable. Similar to previous research, our models indicated that fire is a strong, positive predictor of cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence. Models fitted to all sample points and to only unburned points indicated that grazing and the proportion of years grazed were strong positive predictors of occurrence and prevalence. In contrast, in models restricted to burned points, prevalence was high, but decreased slightly as the proportion of years grazed increased (relative to other burned points). Prevalence of cheatgrass also decreased as the prevalence of perennial grasses increased. Cheatgrass occurrence decreased as elevation increased, but prevalence within the elevational range of cheatgrass increased as median winter precipitation, elevation, and solar exposure increased. Our novel time-series data and results indicate that grazing corresponds with increased cheatgrass occurrence and prevalence regardless of variation in climate, topography, or community composition, and provide no support for the notion that contemporary grazing regimes or grazing in conjunction with fire can suppress cheatgrass.


Bromus tectorum Hierarchical models Fire Great Basin Livestock grazing Resilience 



This research was supported by the Joint Fire Science Program (05-2-1-94, 09-1-08-4, and 15-1-03-6), the US National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (1650042), the US Geological Survey’s Northwest and Southwest Climate Science Centers (F16AC00025), and the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program of the US Department of Defense (RC-2202).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew A. Williamson
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Erica Fleishman
    • 2
    • 3
  • Ralph C. Mac Nally
    • 4
    • 5
  • Jeanne C. Chambers
    • 6
  • Bethany A. Bradley
    • 7
  • David S. Dobkin
    • 8
  • David I. Board
    • 6
  • Frank A. Fogarty
    • 2
  • Ned Horning
    • 9
  • Matthias Leu
    • 10
  • Martha Wohlfeil Zillig
    • 2
  1. 1.Boise State UniversityBoiseUSA
  2. 2.University of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  3. 3.Colorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Institute for Applied EcologyUniversity of CanberraBruceAustralia
  5. 5.School of BioSciencesThe University of MelbourneParkvilleAustralia
  6. 6.Rocky Mountain Research StationUSDA Forest ServiceRenoUSA
  7. 7.University of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  8. 8.High Desert Ecological Research InstituteBendUSA
  9. 9.American Museum of Natural HistoryNew YorkUSA
  10. 10.College of William and MaryWilliamsburgUSA

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