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Appropriate sample sizes for monitoring burned pastures in sagebrush steppe: How many plots are enough, and can one size fit all?

November 1, 2018

Statistically defensible information on vegetation conditions is needed to guide rangeland management decisions following disturbances such as wildfire, often for heterogeneous pastures. Here we evaluate the number of plots needed to make informed adaptive management decisions using >2000 plots sampled on the 2015 Soda Fire that burned across 75 pastures and 113,000 ha in Idaho and Oregon, USA. We predicted that the number of plots required to generate a threshold of standard error/mean ≤0.2 (TSR, threshold sampling requirement) for plant cover within pasture units would vary between sampling methods (rapid ocular versus grid-point intercept) and among plot sizes (1, 6, or 531 m2), as well as relative to topography, elevation, pasture size, complexity of soils and vegetation treatments applied, and dominance by exotic annual or perennial grasses. Sampling was adequate for determining exotic annual and perennial grass cover in about half of the pastures. A tradeoff in number versus size of plots sampled was apparent, whereby TSR was attainable with less area searched using smaller plot sizes (1 compared to 531 m2) in spite of less variability between larger plots. TSR for both grass types decreased as their dominance increased (0.5-1.5 plots per % cover increment). TSR decreased for perennial grass but increased for exotic annual grass with higher elevations. TSR increased with standard deviation of elevation for perennial grass sampled with grid-point intercept. Sampling effort could be more reliably predicted from landscape variables for the grid-point compared to ocular sampling method. These findings suggest that adjusting the number and size of sample plots within a pasture or burn area using easily determined landscape variables could increase monitoring efficiency and effectiveness.