Ecological - Second Order
Nitrogen fixing plants have been reported to play an important role in replacing N lost from soil in fire dominated ecosystems. Exclusion of fire from ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa Dougl. ex Laws.)-Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) forests of western Montana has lead to widespread changes in forest structure, composition, and function including a potential reduction in the occurrence of N-fixing plant species. We investigated the effect of fire exclusion and reintroduction of fire on the frequency, occurrence, and function of native N-fixing plant species at 11 paired burned and unburned sites in western Montana. These pairs had been either undisturbed since the early 1900s or had been repeatedly opened by logging and (or) fire over the last 80-100 years. Although the percent cover of N-fixing plants was low at all sites, the cover and frequency of N-fixing plants were significantly greater in sites exposed to fire than in the unburned sites and greater in repeatedly opened sites than in undisturbed sites. In contrast, levels of available N were significantly lower in burned sites compared with unburned sites and in repeatedly opened sites. Nitrogen-fixing plants may have played an important role in maintaining productivity in frequently burned ponderosa pine forests but now appear to be suppressed in fire-excluded forests.