Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Thresholds and hotspots for shrub restoration following a heterogeneous megafire

June 14, 2018

Context

Reestablishing foundational plant species through aerial seeding is an essential yet challenging step for restoring the vast semiarid landscapes impacted by plant invasions and wildfire-regime shifts. A key component of the challenge stems from landscape variability and its effects on plant recovery.

Objectives

We assessed landscape correlates, thresholds, and tipping points for sagebrush presence from fine-scale sampling across a large, heterogeneous area burned the previous year, where we were able to quantify soil surface features that are typically occluded yet can strongly affect recovery patterns.

Methods

Hypothesis testing and binary-decision trees were used to evaluate factors affecting initial sagebrush establishment, using 2171 field plots (totaling ~ 2,000,000 m2 sampled) over a 113,000-ha region.

Results

Sagebrush established in 50% of plots where it was seeded, a > 12-fold greater establishment frequency than in unseeded areas. Sagebrush establishment was enhanced in threshold-like ways by elevation (> 1200 m ASL), topographic features that alter heatload and soil water, and by soil-surface features such as “fertile islands” that bore the imprint of pre-fire sagebrush. Sagebrush occupancy had a negative, linear relationship with exotic-annual grass cover and parabolic relationship with perennial bunchgrasses (optimal at 40% cover).

Conclusions

Our approach revealed interactive, ecological relationships such as novel soil-surface effects on first year establishment of sagebrush across the burned landscape, and identified “hot spots” for recovery. The approach could be expanded across sites and years to provide the information needed to explain past seeding successes or failures, and in designing treatments at the landscape scale.