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Effectiveness of prescribed fire to re-establish sagebrush steppe vegetation and ecohydrologic function on woodland-encroached sagebrush rangelands, Great Basin, USA: Part I: Vegetation, hydrology, and erosion responses

C.J. Williams, Frederick B. Pierson, Sayjro K. Nouwakpo, Osama Z. Al-Hamdan, Patrick R. Kormos, Mark A. Weltz
Catena 2020 v.185 pp. 103477
Artemisia, Bromus tectorum, Juniperus, Pinus, basins, canopy, conifers, ecosystems, grasses, growing season, indigenous species, land management, land ownership, overland flow, perennials, plant cuttings, prediction, prescribed burning, private lands, public lands, raindrop impact, rainfall simulation, rangelands, risk, runoff, sediment yield, sediments, shredding, shrubs, soil, soil resources, sowing, steppes, trees, understory, wildfires, woodlands, Southwestern United States
Pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodland encroachment has imperiled a broad ecological domain of the sagebrush steppe (Artemisia spp.) ecosystem in the Great Basin Region, USA. As these conifers increase in dominance on sagebrush rangelands, understory vegetation declines and ecohydrologic function can shift from biotic (vegetation) controlled retention of soil resources to abiotic (runoff) driven loss of soil resources and long-term site degradation. Scientists, public land management agencies, and private land owners are challenged with selecting and predicting outcomes to treatment alternatives to improve ecological structure and function on these rangelands. This study is the first of a two-part study to evaluate effectiveness of prescribed fire to re-establish sagebrush steppe vegetation and improve ecohydrologic function on mid- to late-succession pinyon-and juniper-encroached sagebrush sites in the Great Basin. We used a suite of vegetation and soil measures, small-plot (0.5 m2) rainfall simulations, and overland flow experiments (9 m2) to quantify the effects of tree removal by prescribed fire on vegetation, soils, and rainsplash, sheetflow, and concentrated flow hydrologic and erosion processes at two woodlands 9-yr after burning. For untreated conditions, extensive bare interspace (87% bare ground) throughout the degraded intercanopy (69–88% bare ground) between trees at both sites promoted high runoff and sediment yield from combined rainsplash and sheetflow (~45 mm, 59–381 g m−2) and concentrated flow (371–501 L, 2343–3015 g) processes during high intensity rainfall simulation (102 mm h−1, 45 min) and overland flow experiments (15, 30, and 45 L min−1, 8 min each). Burning increased canopy cover of native perennial herbaceous vegetation by >5-fold, on average, across both sites over nine growing seasons. Burning reduced low pre-fire sagebrush canopy cover (<1% to 14% average) at both sites and sagebrush recovery is expected to take >30 yr. Enhanced herbaceous cover in interspaces post-fire reduced runoff and sediment yield from high intensity rainfall simulations by >2-fold at both sites. Fire-induced increases in herbaceous canopy cover (from 34% to 62%) and litter ground cover (from 15% to 36%) reduced total runoff (from 501 L to 180 L) and sediment yield (from 2343 g to 115 g) from concentrated flow experiments in the intercanopy at one site. Sparser herbaceous vegetation (49% cover) and litter cover (8%) in the intercanopy at the other, more degraded site post-fire resulted in no significant reduction of total runoff (371 L to 266 L) and sediment yield (3015 g to 1982 g) for concentrated flow experiments. Areas underneath unburned shrub and tree canopies were well covered by vegetation and ground cover and generated limited runoff and sediment. Fire impacts on vegetation, ground cover, and runoff and sediment delivery from tree and shrub plots were highly variable. Burning litter covered areas underneath trees reduced perennial herbaceous vegetation and increased invasibility to the fire-prone annual cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum L.). Cheatgrass cover increased from <1% pre-fire to 16–30%, on average, post-fire across the sites and was primarily restricted to areas around burned trees. High herbaceous cover (73%) under burned trees at the less degraded site resulted in similar low total runoff and sediment from concentrated flow experiments as pre-fire (136–228 L, 204–423 g). In contrast, fire-reduction of litter (from 79% to 49%) resulted in increased total runoff (from 103 L to 333 L) and sediment yield (from 619 g to 2170 g) from concentrated flow experiments in burned tree areas at the more degraded site. The experimental results demonstrate pinyon and juniper removal by prescribed fire can effectively re-establish a successional trajectory towards sagebrush steppe vegetation structure and thereby improve ecohydrologic function. Responses to burning at the more degraded site suggest results should be interpreted with caution however. Although burning substantially increased perennial grass cover and reduced fine-scale runoff and erosion at the more degraded site, poor sagebrush recovery, delayed litter recruitment, and persistent high concentrated flow erosion at that site suggest not all sites are good candidates for prescribed fire treatments. Furthermore, high levels of cheatgrass in burned tree areas (~30% of area) at both sites increases wildfire risk, but cheatgrass is expected to decline over time in absence of fire. Our results in context with the literature suggest fire-surrogate tree-removal treatments (e.g., tree cutting or shredding) may be more appropriate on degraded sites with limited pre-treatment sagebrush and perennial herbaceous vegetation and that seeding may be necessary to improve post-fire establishment of sagebrush steppe vegetation structure and associated ecohydrologic function under these conditions. Lastly, vegetation, runoff, and erosion responses in this study are not directly applicable outside of the Great Basin, but similar responses in woodland studies from the southwestern US suggest potential application of results to woodlands in that region. The concept of re-establishing vegetation structure to improve ecohydrologic function is broadly applicable to sparsely vegetated lands around the World.