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Transition of vegetation states positively affects harvester ants in the Great Basin, United States

August 23, 2016

Invasions by non-native plants can alter ecosystems such that new ecological states are reached, but less is known about how these transitions influence animal populations. Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) ecosystems are experiencing state changes because of fire and invasion by exotic annual grasses. Our goal was to study the effects of these state changes on the Owyhee and western harvester ants (Pogonomyrmex salinusOlsen and P. occidentalis Cresson, respectively). We sampled 358 1-ha plots across the northern Great Basin, which captured unburned and burned conditions across 1 −≥31 years postfire. Our results indicated an immediate and consistent change in vegetation states from shrubland to grassland between 1 and 31 years postfire. Harvester ant occupancy was unrelated to time since fire, whereas we observed a positive effect of fire on nest density. Similarly, we discovered that fire and invasion by exotic annuals were weak predictors of harvester ant occupancy but strong predictors of nest density. Occupancy of harvester ants was more likely in areas with finer-textured soils, low precipitation, abundant native forbs, and low shrub cover. Nest density was higher in arid locations that recently burned and exhibited abundant exotic annual and perennial (exotic and native) grasses. Finally, we discovered that burned areas that received postfire restoration had minimal influence on harvester ant occupancy or nest density compared with burned and untreated areas. These results suggest that fire-induced state changes from native shrublands to grasslands dominated by non-native grasses have a positive effect on density of harvester ants (but not occupancy), and that postfire restoration does not appear to positively or negatively affect harvester ants. Although wildfire and invasion by exotic annual grasses may negatively affect other species, harvester ants may indeed be one of the few winners among a myriad of losers linked to vegetation state changes within sagebrush ecosystems.