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Historical fire regimes and contemporary fire effects within sagebrush habitats of Gunnison Sage-grouse

June 25, 2023

The historical role of fire in sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) landscapes remains poorly understood, yet is important to inform management and conservation of obligate species such as the threatened Gunnison Sage-grouse (GUSG; Centrocercus minimus). We reconstructed fire histories from tree-ring fire scars at sagebrush–forest ecotones (10 sites, 111 trees) to better understand the role of fire in sagebrush landscapes of the Upper Gunnison Basin (UGB), Colorado, and how fire may have changed following Euro-American settlement. We assessed likely influences of historical fire by surveying plant composition and structure at 100 sagebrush sites with and without recent (2001–2020) fires. Tree-ring fire scars revealed a history of repeated low-severity fire at sagebrush–forest ecotones until 1892, followed by over a century without fire. Between 1684 and 1892, the mean fire interval (MFI) among sites averaged 49.6 years (ranging from 18.2 to 119 years). Fire over this period occurred synchronously at two or more sites on average every 23.6 years, potentially indicative of spread between sites. Most (70%) of the historical fires burned in the early growing season, consistent with times of strong wind. Recent burns exhibited reductions in sagebrush cover (5% vs. 25% in unburned sites) and concomitant increases in herbaceous cover (55% vs. 40%). These differences declined over time but persisted for at least two decades. Burned sites were dominated by native perennial grasses, forbs, and resprouting shrub species. Historically, such openings may have served as seasonal GUSG habitat. Our results indicate that parts of the UGB sagebrush landscapes were characterized historically by frequent fire and dynamic vegetation mosaics that included open, grassy patches. These findings support the use of prescribed fire to restore and maintain this ecological process and vegetation heterogeneity. However, the contemporary context for fire has changed and now includes substantially reduced, Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed GUSG populations, increased risk of non-native plant invasion, and climate warming. These circumstances highlight new risks, information needs, and opportunities for key knowledge co-production via management–research partnerships.

Publication Year 2023
Title Historical fire regimes and contemporary fire effects within sagebrush habitats of Gunnison Sage-grouse
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.4587
Authors Petar Simic, Jonathan Coop, Ellis Margolis, Jessica R. Young, Manuel K. Lopez
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70248125
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center