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Vegetation Responses to Prescribed Burning of Grazed Shortgrass Steppe

Augustine, David J., Milchunas, Daniel G.
Rangeland ecology & management 2009 v.62 no.1 pp. 89
steppes, prairies, prescribed burning, vegetation, botanical composition, forage, wildlife management, weed control, winter, grazing, grazing intensity, precipitation, drought, Gutierrezia sarothrae, Opuntia, weeds, nitrogen content, nutritive value, Opuntia polyacantha, Colorado
Over the past century, fire has been widely suppressed in the western Great Plains, in part because of the potential negative effects on forage production for livestock. More recently, interest in the use of prescribed fire in shortgrass steppe has increased because of the potential applications for wildlife management, control of unpalatable plant species, and restoration of historic disturbance regimes. We studied the effects of prescribed burns conducted during late winter on herbaceous production, forage nitrogen content, and plant species composition of shortgrass steppe on the Pawnee National Grassland in northeastern Colorado. Late-winter burns conducted in moderately grazed sites under a wide range of precipitation conditions during 1997––2001 did not negatively affect herbaceous production in either the first or the second postburn growing season. Burning followed by a severe drought in 2002 reduced production by 19%% in the second postburn growing season of 2003. Burns temporarily suppressed the abundance of broom snakeweed (Gutierrezia sarothrae) and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha) and enhanced forage nitrogen content during May and June of the first postburn growing season. These findings suggest that, except following severe drought, prescribed burns conducted during late winter in grazed shortgrass steppe for objectives unrelated to livestock production can also have neutral or positive consequences for livestock.