Repeated fire altered succession and increased fire behavior in basin big sagebrush-native perennial grasslands.
The structure and composition of sagebrush-dominated ecosystems have been altered by changes in fire regimes, land use, invasive species, and climate change. This often decreases resilience to disturbance and degrades critical habitat for species of conservation concern. Basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. tridentata) ecosystems, in particular, are greatly reduced in distribution as land has been converted to agriculture and other land uses. The fire regime, relative proportions of shrub and grassland patches, and the effects of repeated burns in this ecosystem are poorly understood. We quantified postfire patterns of vegetation accumulation and modeled potential fire behavior on sites that were burned and first measured in the late 1980s at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon, USA. The area partially reburned 11 yr after the initial fire, allowing a comparison of one vs. two fires. Repeated burns shifted composition from shrub-dominated to prolonged native herbaceous dominance. Fifteen years following one fire, the native-dominated herbaceous component was 44% and live shrubs were 39% of total aboveground biomass. Aboveground biomass of twice-burned sites (2xB; burned 26 and 15 yr prior) was 71% herbaceous and 12% shrub. Twenty-six years after fire, total aboveground biomass was 113-209% of preburn levels, suggesting a fire-return interval of 15-25 yr. Frequency and density of Pseudoroegneria spicata and Festuca idahoensis were not modified by fire history, but Poa secunda was reduced by repeated fire, occurring in 84% of plots burned 26 yr prior, 72% of plots burned 15 yr prior, and 49% in 2xB plots. Nonnative annual Bromus tectorum occurred at a frequency of 74%, but at low density with no differences due to fire history. Altered vegetation structure modified fire behavior, with modeled rates of fire spread in 2xB sites double that of once-burned sites. This suggests that these systems likely were historically composed of a mosaic of shrub and grassland. However, contemporary increases in fire frequency will likely create positive feedbacks of more intense fire behavior and prolonged periods of early-successional vegetation in basin big sagebrush communities.