Post-fire management of annual grasses may have released rush skeletonweed and suppressed its biocontrol agent

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Top-down and bottom-up factors affecting invasive populations are rarely considered simultaneously, yet their interactive responses to disturbances and management interventions can be essential to understanding invasion patterns. We evaluated post-fire responses of the exotic perennial forb Chondrilla juncea (rush skeletonweed) and its biocontrol agents to landscape factors and a post-fire combined herbicide (imazapic) and bacteria (Pseudomonas fluorescens strain MB906) treatment that targeted invasive annual grasses in a sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Biocontrol agents released against C. juncea in previous decades included Cystiphora schmidti (gall midge), Aceria chondrillae (gall mite), and Puccinia chondrillina (rust fungus). C. juncea abundance was greater in sprayed than unsprayed plots, and where soils were coarser, slopes faced southwest, solar heat loads and topographic water accumulation were greater, and cover of deep-rooted native perennials was lower. Mite infestation was greater in unsprayed plots, midge infestation was greater at higher elevations on steeper slopes, and midges were more abundant while rust was less abundant on gravelly soils. Biocontrol infestation levels varied considerably between years and could not be predicted in 2019 from 2018 infestation levels. Multiple biocontrol species were often present at the same plots but were rarely present on the same C. juncea individuals. These results suggest that spatial patterns of invasion by C. juncea are related to deep-soil water availability, warmer conditions, and alleviation of competition. Treatments designed to reduce invasive annual grasses may inadvertently release C. juncea by both reducing plant competition for soil resources and affecting biocontrol agent (mite) abundance.

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