Trajectories of change in sagebrush steppe vegetation communities in relation to multiple wildfires


  • Corresponding Editor: K. A. Hibbard.


Repeated perturbations, both biotic and abiotic, can lead to fundamental changes in the nature of ecosystems, including changes in state. Sagebrush steppe communities provide important habitat for wildlife and grazing for livestock. Fire is an integral part of these systems, but there is concern that increased ignition frequencies and invasive species are fundamentally altering them. Despite these issues, the majority of studies of fire effects in systems dominated by Artemisia tridentata wyomingensis have focused on the effects of single burns. The Arid Lands Ecology Reserve (ALE), in south-central Washington (USA), was one of the largest contiguous areas of sagebrush steppe habitat in the state until large wildfires burned the majority of it in 2000 and 2007. We analyzed data from permanent vegetation transects established in 1996 and resampled in 2002 and 2009. Our objective was to describe how the fires, and subsequent postfire restoration efforts, affected communities' successional pathways. Plant communities differed in response to repeated fire and restoration; these differences could largely be ascribed to the functional traits of the dominant species. Low-elevation communities, previously dominated by obligate seeders, moved furthest from their initial composition and were dominated by weedy, early-successional species in 2009. Higher-elevation sites with resprouting shrubs, native bunchgrasses, and few invasive species were generally more resilient to the effects of repeated disturbances. Shrub cover has been almost entirely removed from ALE, although there was some recovery where communities were dominated by resprouters. Bromus tectorum dominance was reduced by herbicide application in areas where it was previously abundant, but it increased significantly in untreated areas. Several resprouting species, notably Phlox longifolia and Poa secunda, expanded remarkably following competitive release from shrub canopies and/or abundant B. tectorum. Our results suggest that community dynamics can be understood through a state and transition model with two axes (shrub/grass and native/invasive abundance), although such models also need to account for differences in plant functional traits and disturbance regimes. We use our results to develop a conceptual model that will be validated with further research.