Joseph T. Smith, Brady W. Allred, Chad S. Boyd, Kirk W. Davies, Andrew R. Kleinhesselink, Scott L. Morford, David E. Naugle, “Fire needs annual grasses more than annual grasses need fire,” Biological Conservation, Volume 286, 2023.
Sagebrush ecosystems of western North America are experiencing widespread loss and degradation by invasive annual grasses. Positive feedbacks between fire and annual grasses are often invoked to explain the rapid pace of these changes, yet annual grasses also appear capable of achieving dominance among vegetation communities that have not burned for many decades.
Using a dynamic, remotely sensed vegetation dataset in tandem with remotely sensed fire perimeter and burn severity datasets, we examine the role of fire in transitions to and persistence of annual grass dominance in the U.S. Great Basin over the past 3 decades.
Although annual grasses and wildfire are so tightly associated that one is rarely mentioned without the other, our findings reveal surprisingly widespread transformation of sagebrush ecosystems by invasive annual grasses in the absence of fire.
These findings are discussed in the context of strategic management; we argue a pivot from predominantly reactive management (e.g., aggressive fire suppression and post-fire restoration in heavily-infested areas) to more proactive management (e.g., enhancing resistance and managing propagule pressure in minimally-invaded areas) is urgently needed to halt the loss of Great Basin sagebrush ecosystems.