Using a chronosequence approach, cover of vascular plants and biocrusts was examined across chronic disturbance gradients related to invasion by exotic species and grazing by livestock, following the acute disturbance of fire using paired burned and unburned plots in Wyoming big sagebrush on 99 plots. Results Cover of vascular plants and biocrusts was related to disturbance more so than abiotic factors of precipitation following fire, soil chemistry, percent coarse fragment and heat load index. Over time since fire of 12–23 years, we saw recovery of early successional groups: short mosses, shallow-rooted perennial grasses and annual forbs. Cover of deep and shallow-rooted perennial grasses and annual forbs increased in cover with intermediate levels of disturbance. Perennial forbs lacked a clear relationship with disturbance. Biocrusts decreased in cover with less disturbance when compared with perennial herbaceous plants but differed in sensitivities. Tall mosses were less sensitive to disturbance compared with lichens. Short mosses increased with some disturbance.