Prescribed fire, soil inorganic nitrogen dynamics, and plant responses in a semiarid grassland.
In arid and semiarid ecosystems, fire can potentially affect ecosystem dynamics through changes in soil moisture, temperature, and nitrogen cycling, as well as through direct effects on plant meristem mortality. We examined effects of annual and triennial prescribed fires conducted in early spring on soil moisture, temperature, and N, plant growth, and plant N content in semiarid shortgrass steppe. Annual burning increased soil inorganic N availability throughout the growing season, which was associated with increased soil temperature and a reduction in aboveground N in C3 plants. Furthermore, the increase in soil inorganic N pools with annual burning was modest and did not facilitate success of ruderal species. Negative fire effects on C3 plant production could be due to increased soil temperature, reduced soil moisture, or direct negative effects on C3 plant meristems, although fuel loads and fire temperatures were low relative to other grasslands. Triennial burning had intermediate effects on N availability and C3 plant production compared to annual burning and unburned controls. Results show that prescribed burns can be used in the management of this semiarid grassland without facilitating annual plant invasion, but excessively frequent burning can reduce production of C3 plants.