Sagebrush recovery patterns after fuel treatments mediated by disturbance type and plant functional group interactions.
Fire and fuel management is a high priority in North American sagebrush ecosystems where the expansion of piñon and juniper trees and the invasion of nonnative annual grasses are altering fire regimes and resulting in loss of sagebrush species and habitat. We evaluated 10-yr effects of woody fuel treatments on sagebrush recruitment and plant functional group interactions using Sagebrush Steppe Treatment Evaluation Project data. We used mixed-effects ANOVAs to examine treatment effects on sagebrush density and cover and perennial and annual grass cover in expansion woodlands (prescribed fire and cut-and-leave) and annual grass invasion areas (prescribed fire, mowing, tebuthiuron herbicide application). We used piecewise structural equation models to evaluate interactions among sagebrush seedling density, juvenile and adult density, and cover and perennial and annual grass cover. Fuel treatments were equated to pulse or press disturbances varying in resource release and subsequent intra- and interspecific interactions. Prescribed fire, a high magnitude pulse disturbance with more severe effects in warm and dry sites, reduced sagebrush cover and decoupled associations among sagebrush seedlings, juvenile and adult density, and cover indicating changed population structure. Cutting and leaving trees, a low magnitude pulse disturbance in cooler and moister woodlands, increased sagebrush density and cover and generally had lesser effects on sagebrush intraspecific associations. Mowing, a moderate magnitude pulse disturbance, and tebuthiuron herbicide application, a multiyear press disturbance, reduced sagebrush cover and disrupted intraspecific relationships. Competitive release increased cover of perennial grass in all treatments but tebuthiuron. Annual grass increased in all treatments, especially prescribed fire and tebuthiuron. Annual and perennial grass interactions with sagebrush were generally rare, but in woodland treatments perennial grass suppressed annual grass through year 6. Treatments in cooler and moister woodland sites had more positive effects on sagebrush recruitment and perennial grass cover, less negative effects on sagebrush intraspecific interactions, and smaller increases in annual grass cover indicating potential increases in resilience to fire. In warmer and drier invasion sites, reductions in woody fuels resulted in lack of sagebrush recruitment, disruption of sagebrush intraspecific interactions, and progressive increases in annual grass indicating reduced resilience to fire and resistance to invaders.