Fuel Treatments & Effects
Stable coexistence requires intraspecific limitations to be stronger than interspecific limitations. The greater the difference between intra‐ and interspecific limitations, the more stable the coexistence, and the weaker the competitive release any species should experience following removal of competitors. We conducted a removal experiment to test whether a previously estimated model, showing surprisingly weak interspecific competition for four dominant species in a sagebrush steppe, accurately predicts competitive release. Our treatments were (1) removal of all perennial grasses and (2) removal of the dominant shrub, Artemisia tripartita. We regressed survival, growth, and recruitment on the locations, sizes, and species identities of neighboring plants, along with an indicator variable for removal treatment. If our “baseline” regression model, which accounts for local plant–plant interactions, accurately explains the observed responses to removals, then the removal coefficient should be non‐significant. For survival, the removal coefficients were never significantly different from zero, and only A. tripartita showed a (negative) response to removals at the recruitment stage. For growth, the removal treatment effect was significant and positive for two species, Poa secunda and Pseudoroegneria spicata, indicating that the baseline model underestimated interspecific competition. For all three grass species, population models based on the vital rate regressions that included removal effects projected 1.4‐ to 3‐fold increases in equilibrium population size relative to the baseline model (no removal effects). However, we found no evidence of higher response to removal in quadrats with higher pretreatment cover of A. tripartita, or by plants experiencing higher pre‐treatment crowding by A. tripartita, raising questions about the mechanisms driving the positive response to removal. While our results show the value of combining observations with a simple removal experiment, more tightly controlled experiments focused on underlying mechanisms may be required to conclusively validate or reject predictions from phenomenological models.