Bunchgrass root abundances and their relationship to resistance and resilience of burned shrub-steppe

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This study used a standardized protocol for root measurement across sagebrush steppe burned in the 2015 Soda fire in the Northern Great Basin, United States. Nearly all (99%) bunchgrasses, including seedlings, had deeper roots than the surrounding annual grasses (mean depth of annuals = 6.8 ± 3.3 cm), and 88% of seedlings remained rooted in response to the “tug test” (uprooting resistance to ~ 1 kg of upward pull on shoot), with smaller plants (mean height and basal diameters < 20 cm and < 2 cm, respectively) more likely to fail the test regardless of their root abundance. Lateral roots of bunchgrasses were scarcer in larger basal gaps (interspace between perennials) but were surprisingly not directly related to cover of surrounding exotic annual grasses (EAG). However, EAG cover increased with the size of basal gaps and decreased with greater basal diameter of bunchgrass (in addition to prefire EAG abundance). These results provide some support for 1) the importance of basal gaps and bunchgrass diameters as indicators of both vulnerability to annual grass invasion and bunchgrass root abundance and 2) the need for more detailed methods for root measurement than used here in order to substantiate their usefulness in understanding rangeland resistance and resilience.

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