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Resilience of Sandhills Grassland to Wildfire During Drought

Arterburn, Jack R., Twidwell, Dirac, Schacht, Walter H., Wonkka, Carissa L., Wedin, David A.
Rangeland ecology & management 2018 v.71 no.1 pp. 53-57
The Nature Conservancy, biomass, drought, dunes, ecoregions, ecosystems, fine roots, grasslands, land management, models, soil, warm season grasses, wildfires, Nebraska
In the Nebraska Sandhills, one of the largest contiguous grassland ecoregions remaining in North America, sandy textured soils are stabilized by fine root biomass from predominantly warm-season grasses. Concerns over destabilization have led to management that aims to avoid an undesirable state change toward mobile sand dunes. In 2012, the Sandhills experienced extreme drought conditions that coincided with the worst wildfire year on state record. According to state-and-transition models and ecosystem managers, the combination of wildfire and drought conditions should cause a state transition due to a lack of recovery of grassland vegetation and a loss of sand dune stability. To test this hypothesis, we implemented a time-since-fire study to track biomass recovery of Sandhills grassland vegetation following a wildfire on The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in burned and unburned areas. Two yr following the wildfire, aboveground herbaceous biomass in burned areas had recovered to levels that did not differ from unburned areas, maintaining the stability of the sand dunes. This provides evidence that counters current land management frameworks that portray Sandhills grassland as highly vulnerable to destabilization when wildfires occur during severe drought conditions.