Research and Publications

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Ventenata response to grazing and Rx fire on PNW bunchgrass prairie

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This study documented a 30% increase in ventenata cover and 55% increase in frequency on the PNB over the past 15 yr, including areas that were not disturbed by fire or cattle grazing. We found only weak evidence that cattle grazing increased ventenata standing crop when compared with cattle-excluded paddocks, something that could be related to timing of use. There was no evidence that prescribed burning impacted the response of ventenata on its own. However, we found some evidence of interactions between cattle grazing and prescribed fire that suggests prescribed burning could help reduce the abundance of ventenata in areas grazed by livestock. These studies reinforce the important differences between ventenata and other invasive winter annuals in grasslands and clarify a need for research that focuses primarily on the dynamics between this relatively new exotic species in grasslands and the many ecosystems it now inhabits.

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Fuel reductions reduce modeled fire intensity in sagebrush steppe

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This study presents 10 years of data on fuel accumulation and the resultant modeled fire behavior in prescribed fire, mowed, herbicide (tebuthiuron or imazapic), and untreated control plots in the Sagebrush Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP) network in the Great Basin, USA. Fuel data (i.e., aboveground burnable live and dead biomass) were collected in each treatment plot at Years 0 (pretreatment), 1, 2, 3, 6, and 10 posttreatment. We used the Fuel and Fire Tool fire behavior modeling program to test whether treatments impacted potential fire behavior. Prescribed fire initially removed 49% of the total fuel load and 75% of shrubs, and fuel loads remained reduced through Year 10. Mowing shifted fuels from the shrub canopy to the ground surface but did not change the total fuel amount. Prescribed fire and mowing increased herbaceous fuel by the second posttreatment year and that trend persisted through Year 10. Tebuthiuron treatments were ineffective at altering fuel loads. Imazapic suppressed herbaceous vegetation by 30% in Years 2 and 3 following treatment. The modified fuel beds in fire and mow treatments resulted in modeled flame lengths that were significantly lower than untreated control plots for the duration of the study, with shorter term reductions in reaction intensity and rate of spread. Understanding fuel treatment effectiveness will allow natural resource managers to evaluate trade-offs between protecting wildlife habitat and reducing the potential for high-intensity wildfire.

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Phenotypes and environment predict seedling survival with invasive grass

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Sampling seven taxa from the same sites allowed us to ask how trait–environment–performance associations differ among taxa and whether natural selection favors similar traits across multiple taxa and functional groups. All taxa showed trait–environment associations consistent with local adaptation, and both environment of origin and phenotypes predicted survival in competitive restoration settings, with some commonalities among taxa. Notably, rapid emergence and larger seeds increased survival for multiple taxa. Environmental factors at collection sites, including lower slopes (especially for grasses), greater mean annual temperatures (especially for shrubs and forbs), and greater precipitation seasonality were frequently associated with increased survival. We noted one collection site with high seedling survival across all seven taxa, suggesting that conditions within some sites may result in selection for traits that increase establishment for multiple species. Thus, choosing native plant sources with the most adaptive traits, along with matching climates, will likely improve the restoration of invaded communities.

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Are drought indices and climate data good indicators of ecologically relevant soil moisture dynamics in drylands?

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In this study, we tested components of climatic water balance, including standardized precipitation-evapotranspiration index (SPEI) and SPEI computation lengths, to recreate multi-decadal and periodic soil-moisture patterns across soil profiles at 866 sites in the western United States. Modeling results show that SPEI calculated over the prior 12-months was the most predictive computation length and could recreate changes in moisture availability within the soil profile over longer periods of time and for annual recharge of deeper soil moisture stores. SPEI was slightly less successful with recreating spring surface-soil moisture availability, which is key to dryland ecosystems dominated by winter precipitation. Meteorological drought indices like SPEI are intended to be convenient and generalized indicators of meteorological water deficit. However, the inconsistent ability of SPEI to recreate ecologically relevant patterns of soil moisture at regional scales suggests that process-based models, and the larger data requirements they involve, remain an important tool for dryland ecohydrology.

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Virtual fencing effectively excludes cattle from burned sagebrush steppe

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We evaluated the use of a “virtual fence” (VF) for excluding cattle from burned areas within small pastures in the sagebrush steppe of southeast Oregon. VF technology (Vence Corporation, San Francisco, CA) uses satellite-controlled collars that direct animal movement within user-defined polygons using auditory and electrical cues. We fall-burned a 0.6-ha area in each of six adjacent 2.1-ha pastures in a Wyoming big sagebrush plant community in 2019. In June 2020, each pasture was stocked with 3 mature dry cows for 14 d. All cows were fitted with VF collars; collars were programed to create a virtual fence around the burned area within three of the pastures (VF treatment), and remaining pastures had electrical and auditory cues turned off (control treatment). Collars recorded animal location every 5 min. Cows in the control treatment initially spent up to 40% of their time within the burned area, and forage utilization of the burned area was nearly 70%. Cows in the VF treatment spent approximately 4% of their time in the burned area on day 1 and were recorded in the burn only incidentally thereafter; forage utilization in the burn was < 3%.

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Weather explains differences in sagebrush-obligate songbird nest success under various grazing regimes

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Sagebrush Sparrow daily nest survival decreased in hotter and drier weather. Brewer’s Sparrow nest survival was resilient to most weather. Vegetation was influenced by grazing but did not decrease nest survival. Weather influenced sparrow nest survival more than grazing regime.

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Greater sage-grouse respond positively to intensive post-fire restoration treatments

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We investigated habitat selection by 28 male greater sage-grouse during each of 3 years after a 113,000-ha wildfire in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem in Idaho and Oregon. During the study period, seeding and herbicide treatments were applied for habitat restoration. We evaluated sage-grouse responses to vegetation and post-fire restoration treatments. Throughout the 3 years post-fire, sage-grouse avoided areas with high exotic annual grass cover but selected strongly for recovering sagebrush and moderately strongly for perennial grasses. By the third year post-fire, they preferred high-density sagebrush, especially in winter when sagebrush is the primary component of the sage-grouse diet. Sage-grouse preferred forb habitat immediately post-fire, especially in summer, but this selection preference was less strong in later years. They also selected areas that were intensively treated with herbicide and seeded with sagebrush, grasses, and forbs, although these responses varied with time since treatment.

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Grazing effects on shrub-induced resource islands and herbaceous vegetation heterogeneity in sagebrush-steppe communities

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We investigated the long-term (+80 yrs.) effects of moderate grazing by cattle on sagebrush-induced spatial heterogeneity in soil nutrients, herbaceous vegetation, and ground cover in sagebrush-bunchgrass steppe communities at eight sites in southeastern Oregon. Each site consisted of a long-term grazing exclosure and an adjacent grazed area. Almost all measured herbaceous vegetation (cover, density, diversity, and evenness) and ground cover variables differed between canopy and interspace microsites. Grazing did not influence the effects of microsites on most measured herbaceous vegetation characteristics and ground cover variables. Available soil nutrients were not influenced by grazing, but the majority differed between microsites. The limited effect of moderate grazing on shrub-induced spatial heterogeneity provides evidence that sagebrush exerts a strong influence on patterns of soil nutrients and herbaceous vegetation in sagebrush-bunchgrass communities.

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Moderate grazing in fall-winter reduces exotic annual grasses in sagebrush-bunchgrass steppe

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We compared moderate grazing during the off season with not grazing in five Wyoming big sagebrush−bunchgrass communities in the northern Great Basin. Treatments were applied annually for 10 yr (2009−2010 through 2018−2019). Plant community characteristics were measured after treatments had been applied from 6 to 10 yr. Off-season grazing reduced exotic annual grass density and cover. After a decade, annual grass cover was twofold greater in ungrazed areas. Sandberg bluegrass density increased with off-season grazing, but large bunchgrass density was similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed areas. Perennial and annual forb density and cover were similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed treatments. Biological soil crust cover was also similar between off-season grazed and ungrazed areas.

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What’s driving the proliferation of exotic annual grasses in sagebrush? Comparing fire with off-season grazing

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We compared 1) burned and ungrazed (burned), 2) off-season, moderately grazed and unburned (grazed), and 3) ungrazed and unburned (control) treatments at five Wyoming big sagebrush sites in southeastern Oregon for half a decade. Fire, but not off-season grazing, substantially increased exotic annual grass cover and abundance. Vegetation cover and density were generally similar between grazed and control areas. In contrast, at the end of the study exotic annual grass cover and density were over fourfold greater in burned areas. Exotic annual grass became the dominant plant group in burned areas, but not in grazed and control areas. Cover and density of annual forbs, predominately non-native species, were generally greater in the burned compared with grazed and control treatments. Fire also decreased soil biological crust cover and sagebrush cover and density compared with grazed and control treatments. This study provides strong evidence that fire is a threat to the sustainability of Wyoming big sagebrush communities at risk of exotic annual grass dominance, but that off-season, moderate grazing poses little risk. However, considering the spatial extent of our study was limited, further evaluations are needed across a larger geographic area.

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