Sagebrush ecosystems of western North America are threatened by invasive annual grasses and wildfires that can remove fire-intolerant shrubs for decades. Fuel reduction treatments are used ostensibly to aid in fire suppression, conserve wildlife habitat, and restore historical fire regimes, but long-term ecological impacts of these treatments are not clear. In 2006, we initiated fuel reduction treatments (prescribed fire, mowing, and herbicide applications [tebuthiuron and imazapic]) in six Artemisia tridentata ssp. wyomingensis communities. We evaluated long-term effects of these fuel treatments on: (1) magnitude and longevity of fuel reduction; (2) Greater Sage-grouse habitat characteristics; and (3) ecological resilience and resistance to invasive annual grasses. Responses were analyzed using repeated-measures linear mixed models. Response variables included plant biomass, cover, density and height, distances between perennial plants, and exposed soil cover. Prescribed fire produced the greatest reduction in woody fuel over time. Mowing initially reduced woody biomass, which recovered by year 10. Tebuthiuron did not significantly reduce woody biomass compared to controls. All woody fuel treatments reduced sagebrush cover to below 15% (recommended minimum for Greater Sage-grouse habitat), but only prescribed fire reduced cover to below controls. Median mowed sagebrush height remained above the recommended 30 cm. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) cover increased to above the recommended maximum of 10% across all treatments and controls. Ecological resilience to woody fuel treatments was lowest with fire and greatest with mowing. Low resilience over the 10 posttreatment years was identified by: (1) poor perennial plant recovery posttreatment with sustained reductions in cover and density of some perennial plant species; (2) sustained reductions in lichen and moss cover; and (3) increases in cheatgrass cover. Although 10 years is insufficient to conclusively describe final ecological responses to fuel treatments, mowing woody fuels has the greatest potential to reduce woody fuel, minimize shrub mortality and soil disturbance, maintain lichens and mosses, and minimize long-term negative impacts on Greater Sage-grouse habitat. However, maintaining ecological resilience and resistance to invasion may be threatened by increases in cheatgrass cover, which are occurring regionally.
Pyke DA, Shaff SE, Chambers JC, Schupp EW, Newingham BA, Gray ML, and Ellsworth LM. 2022. Ten-year ecological responses to fuel treatments within semiarid Wyoming big sagebrush ecosystems. Ecosphere 13 (7), e4176. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.4176