Physical disturbance shapes vascular plant diversity more profoundly than fire in the sagebrush steppe of southeastern Idaho, U.S.A



Matt Lavin, Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology, Montana State University, Bozeman, MT 59717. Tel: 406-994-2032; Fax: 406-994-7600;



Fire is thought to profoundly change the ecology of the sagebrush steppe. The Idaho National Laboratory provides an ideal setting to compare the effects of fire and physical disturbance on plant diversity in high-native-cover sagebrush steppe. Seventy-eight 1-hectare transects were established along paved, green-striped, gravel, and two-track roads, in overgrazed rangeland, and within sagebrush steppe involving different fire histories. Transects were sampled for the diversity and abundance of all vascular plants. Alpha, beta, and phylogenetic beta diversity were analyzed as a response to fire and physical disturbance. Postfire vegetation readily rebounds to prefire levels of alpha plant diversity. Physical disturbance, in contrast, strongly shapes patterns of alpha, beta, and especially phylogenetic beta diversity much more profoundly than fire disturbance. If fire is a concern in the sagebrush steppe then the degree of physical-disturbance should be more so. This finding is probably not specific to the study area but applicable to the northern and eastern portions of the sagebrush biome, which is characterized by a pulse of spring moisture and cold mean minimum winter temperatures. The distinction of sagebrush steppe from Great Basin sagebrush should be revised especially with regard to reseeding efforts and the control of annual grasses.