Longer-term post-fire succession on Wyoming big sagebrush steppe

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This study assessed plant community succession following prescribed fire on ungrazed Wyoming big sagebrush steppe, eastern Oregon. Herbaceous yield, vegetation canopy cover and density were compared between treatments after fire (2003–18). Herbaceous yield in the Burn treatment was about double the control for most of the study period. Prior to fire, native perennials comprised 90–95% of herbaceous yield. After fire, native perennials represented 78% (range 67–93%) and exotic annuals 22% (range 7–33%) of total yield. Exotic annuals increased after fire and responded in two stages. In the first 8 years after fire, desert alyssum dominated the annual plant composition. In the last half of the study, cheatgrass co-dominated the annual component with alyssum. Sagebrush recovery was slow and we estimated sagebrush cover would return to pre-burn levels, at the earliest, in 115 years. Burning Wyoming big sagebrush steppe would be detrimental to sagebrush-obligate wildlife for an extended time period, because of lost cover and structure provided by sagebrush. The additional forage provided on burned areas may give livestock manager’s greater flexibility to rest or defer unburned habitat for wildlife species of critical concern.

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