Re-introducing fire in sagebrush steppe experiencing decreased fire frequency: Does burning promote spatial and temporal heterogeneity?

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Fire frequency has decreased in many shrub-steppe communities. Re-introducing fire may be needed to increase spatial and temporal variability in vegetation, but is often hindered by concerns of undesired vegetation shifts. These concerns arise, in part, because long-term effects of fire re-introduction in these communities after prolonged fire exclusion and other departures from historical conditions are unknown. To better understand the effects of re-introducing fire, we evaluated plant community response to re-introducing fire for 12 years post fire in six mountain big sagebrush communities. Herbaceous biomass production was 1.7-fold greater in burned compared with unburned areas at the conclusion of the study. Exotic annual grasses appeared to be problematic in the first 8 years post fire, but became inconsequential (~1% cover) by the end of the study. Re-introducing fire promoted other shrubs (excluding sagebrush) that were probably inhibited by competition from sagebrush. Sagebrush cover and density remained low in burned areas for the duration of the study, because of limited recruitment in the years immediately post fire and competition from herbaceous vegetation. Re-introducing fire appears to increase temporal and spatial heterogeneity in shrub-steppe communities experiencing prolonged fire exclusion and, therefore, may be needed to maintain a diversity of plant communities.

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