Does post-fire recovery of native grasses across abiotic-stress and invasive-grass gradients match theoretical predictions, in sagebrush steppe?

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We evaluated how abiotic stress and biotic interactions determine native bunchgrass abundances across environmental gradients using additive models of cover data from over 500 plots re-measured annually for 5 years as they recovered naturally (untreated) after a megafire (>100,000 ha) in sagebrush steppe threated by the invasive-grass and fire cycle. The species included native bunchgrasses, bluebunch wheatgrass and Sandberg bluegrass, and the exotic and invasive annual cheatgrass. We asked whether associations between native bunchgrasses and cheatgrass were context dependent and if the SGH could help predict interspecific associations between species in a semiarid environment. The association of cover of each native bunchgrass to cheatgrass was not uniform, and instead varied from neutral to negative across environmental gradients in both space and time (i.e., weather), to which the species had nonlinear and sometimes threshold-like responses. Consistent with the SGH, bunchgrasses were generally more negatively related to cheatgrass (i.e., putative competition) in conditions which increased the cover of each bunchgrass – which were higher elevations and temperatures and lower solar heatload, and, for Sandberg bluegrass, drier conditions. There were few indications of positive interactions (i.e., putative facilitation) in stressful conditions, and instead associations were again negative, albeit weaker, in some of the conditions evaluated. Synthesis. These findings demonstrate that the negative association among native bunchgrasses and cheatgrass is context dependent and is determined by the abundances of both interacting species which is driven by environmental stress. This led to a hypothesis that together Sandberg bluegrass and bluebunch wheatgrass provide complementary resistance to cheatgrass at the landscape level, despite their different ecology and contrary to the management preference for bluebunch wheatgrass. Sandberg bluegrass might be critical for providing resistance against cheatgrass where invasion potential is greatest, i.e., at lower elevations, where bluebunch wheatgrass is scarce.

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