Fire and land cover change in the Palouse Prairie–forest ecotone, Washington and Idaho

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Historically, the ecotone was a matrix of prairie with extensive savanna and some forest. More than half of the ecotone area was prairie, which is now dominated by agriculture, with some residential development. The 16% of the landscape that was pine savanna is now forest or shrubs, agriculture, perennial vegetation under the Conservation Reserve Program, or developed; no savanna now exists. Forests covered 12% of the ecotone and these are still mostly forest. Fires were historically frequent, occurring on average every 5 to 8 years at most sites. Lightning was not frequent but could likely have been sufficient to ignite fires that could spread readily given the rolling terrain and long fire season. Fire was far more frequent historically than currently. Conservation, restoration, and other ongoing land-use changes will likely result in more continuous vegetation and hence fuel for fires. Lightning and people may ignite fires that therefore spread readily in the future. Understanding the past and potential future of fire in the Palouse Prairie bioregion may help us live with fire while conserving ecological values here and in similar prairie–forest ecotones.

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