Ecological - Second Order
Fire plays a large role in structuring sagebrush ecosystems; however, we have little knowledge of how vegetation changes with time as succession proceeds from immediate postfire to mature stands. We sampled at 38 sites in southwest Montana dominated by 3 subspecies of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata Nutt.). At each site we subjectively located 1 sample plot representing the burned area and an unburned macroplot in similar, adjacent, unburned vegetation. Canopy cover of sagebrush was estimated, and plants were counted in 10 microplots. Age and height of randomly chosen sagebrush plants in each size class were determined from 5 microplots. Average postfire time to full recovery of mountain big sagebrush (ssp. vasseyana [Rydb.] Beetle) canopy cover was 32 years, shorter for basin (ssp. tridentata) and much longer for Wyoming (ssp. wyomingensis Beetle & Young) big sagebrush. Height recovered at similar rates. There was no difference in canopy cover or height recovery between prescribed fires and wildfires in stands of mountain big sagebrush. We found no relationship between mountain big sagebrush canopy cover recovery and annual precipitation, heat load, or soil texture. Nearly all unburned sagebrush macroplots were uneven-aged, indicating that recruitment was not limited to immediate postfire conditions in any of the subspecies. Average canopy cover of three-tip sagebrush (A. tripartita Rydb.) did not increase following fire, and many three-tip sagebrush plants established from seed instead of sprouting. Our results suggest that the majority of presettlement mountain big sagebrush stands would have been in early to midseral condition in southwest Montana assuming a mean fire interval of 25 years. Only long fire-return intervals will allow stands dominated by Wyoming big sagebrush to remain on the landscape in our study area. We speculate that effects of site-specific factors conducive to sagebrush recovery are small compared to stochastic effects such as fire.