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Duff Distribution Influences Fire Severity and Post-Fire Vegetation Recovery in Sagebrush Steppe

Abstract

Woody plant expansion is a global phenomenon that alters the spatial distribution of nutrients, biomass, and fuels in affected ecosystems. Altered fuel patterns across the landscape influences ecological processes including fire behavior, fire effects, and can impact post-fire plant germination and establishment. The purpose of this study was to determine how accumulations of ground fuels beneath western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis ssp. occidentalis) canopies, composed of litter and duff, affect post-fire species response in sagebrush steppe and to quantify fuel loading patterns. Field sampling and analysis was conducted across environmental gradients following the 2007 Tongue-Crutcher Wildfire in southwestern Idaho to determine conditions that were most influential in post-fire vegetation recovery patterns. Duff depth and fire severity were determined to be the most influential factors affecting post-fire vegetation response. Decreasing species richness and native perennial grass cover was represented along the increasing duff depth gradient. Species response grouped by fire severity revealed significant presence of cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in low severity sites and a dominance of snowbrush ceanothus (Ceanothus velutinus) in higher severity sites. Determining sub-crown surface fuel characteristics offers the potential to predict future patterns and processes as they relate to burn severity and vegetation recovery components in developing woodlands.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Wildland Fire Science Partnership for funding this project. The Wildland Fire Science Partnership is a University-Forest Service partnership working together to improve the management of wildland fire by integrating science, technology, education, and practical experience. We thank the field technicians who assisted in field data collection and Dutch Oven cooking and the anonymous reviewers for their contributions to this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Eva K. Strand.

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Nathan I. Weiner and Eva K. Strand wrote the paper, conceived design, performed research, analyzed data. Stephen C. Bunting conceived design, performed research. Alistair M.S. Smith conceived design, contributed methods.

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Weiner, N.I., Strand, E.K., Bunting, S.C. et al. Duff Distribution Influences Fire Severity and Post-Fire Vegetation Recovery in Sagebrush Steppe. Ecosystems 19, 1196–1209 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-016-9994-x

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Keywords

  • Ceanothus
  • cheatgrass
  • habitat
  • Great Basin
  • rangeland
  • spatial pattern
  • woodland expansion
  • western juniper