Effects of elevation and selective disturbance on soil climate and vegetation in big sagebrush communities

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During the first years after removal of perennial grasses and forbs, there was an increase in soil water availability in spring at 13–30 cm soil depth that was associated with sagebrush establishment, particularly at upper elevations. In subsequent years, sagebrush continued to dominate even though little difference in soil water availability existed between disturbed and undisturbed plots. This indicates that quickly establishing sagebrush preempted resources and reduced perennial herb recovery. Resource preemption after disturbance will likely be a major driver of plant succession in the future as in the past. Species that establish best under future warmer and drier conditions are most likely to dominate after disturbance. A negative correlation (r2 = 0.34) between the standard deviation of annual spring soil water availability and perennial vegetation cover, which helps resist annual grass invasion, supports the hypothesis that greater resource fluctuation is associated with greater plant community invasibility. Current responses to fire and loss of native plant cover across elevational gradients can indicate future responses under a warmer and drier climate.

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