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Effects of elevation and selective disturbance on soil climate and vegetation in big sagebrush communities

Author(s): Bruce A. Roundy, Jeanne C. Chambers
Year Published: 2021
Description:

Changing climatic conditions prompt concerns about vegetation response to disturbance under future compared to past conditions. In this long‐term study, we examined soil climate and vegetation differences at lower, mid, and upper elevations in two separate locations in the Great Basin, USA. We hypothesized that soil climate and vegetation associations across the elevational gradient could help predict responses under future warming and drying. We measured soil water availability, soil temperatures, and vegetation cover in relation to fire and perennial herb removal at each elevation for 13–17 yr after treatment. Seasonal soil water availability increased, while soil temperature‐related variables decreased with increasing elevation. Soil water availability in spring was positively correlated with October through June precipitation (r2 = 0.53), while water availability in spring through fall was positively correlated with perennial plant cover (r2 = 0.65). Partition models separated low, mid, and high elevations by spring soil water availability and growing degree days when soil water was available (R2 = 0.93). Current soil climate and vegetation conditions at lower elevations could indicate future conditions at higher elevations under a warmer and drier climate. During the first years after removal of perennial grasses and forbs, there was an increase in soil water availability in spring at 13–30 cm soil depth that was associated with sagebrush establishment, particularly at upper elevations. In subsequent years, sagebrush continued to dominate even though little difference in soil water availability existed between disturbed and undisturbed plots. This indicates that quickly establishing sagebrush preempted resources and reduced perennial herb recovery. Resource preemption after disturbance will likely be a major driver of plant succession in the future as in the past. Species that establish best under future warmer and drier conditions are most likely to dominate after disturbance. A negative correlation (r2 = 0.34) between the standard deviation of annual spring soil water availability and perennial vegetation cover, which helps resist annual grass invasion, supports the hypothesis that greater resource fluctuation is associated with greater plant community invasibility. Current responses to fire and loss of native plant cover across elevational gradients can indicate future responses under a warmer and drier climate.

Citation: Roundy, Bruce A.; Chambers, Jeanne C. 2021. Effects of elevation and selective disturbance on soil climate and vegetation in big sagebrush communities. Ecosphere 12(3):e03377. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.3377
Topic(s): Fire Effects, Ecological - Second Order, Soils, Fire & Climate, Fire & Wildlife, Birds, Sage-grouse
Ecosystem(s): None
Document Type: Book or Chapter or Journal Article
NRFSN number: 22873
FRAMES RCS number: 62968
Record updated: Apr 6, 2021