Resilience and resistance in sagebrush ecosystems are associated with seasonal soil temperature and water availability
Invasion and dominance of exotic grasses and increased fire frequency threaten native ecosystems worldwide. In the Great Basin region of the western United States, woody and herbaceous fuel treatments are implemented to decrease the effects of wildfire and increase sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystem resilience to disturbance and resistance to exotic annual grasses. High cover of the exotic annual cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) after treatments increases fine fuels, which in turn increases the risk of passing over a biotic threshold to a state of increased wildfire frequency and conversion to cheatgrass dominance. Sagebrush ecosystem resilience to wildfire and resistance to cheatgrass depend on climatic conditions and abundance of perennial herbaceous species that compete with cheatgrass. In this study, we used longer-term data to evaluate the relationships among soil climate conditions, perennial herbaceous cover, and cheatgrass cover following fuel management treatments across the environmental gradients that characterize sagebrush ecosystems in the Great Basin. We examined the effects of woody and herbaceous fuel treatments on soil temperature, soil water availability (13-30 and 50 cm depths), and native and exotic plant cover on six sagebrush sites lacking pinon (Pinus spp.) or juniper (Juniperus spp.) tree expansion and 11 sagebrush sites with tree expansion. Both prescribed fire and mechanical treatments increased soil water availability on woodland sites and perennial herbaceous cover on some woodland and sagebrush sites. Prescribed fire also slightly increased soil temperatures and especially increased cheatgrass cover compared to no treatment and mechanical treatments on most sites. Non-metric dimensional scaling ordination and decision tree partition analysis indicated that sites with warmer late springs and warmer and wetter falls had higher cover of cheatgrass. Sites with wetter winters and early springs (March-April) had higher cover of perennial herbs. Our findings suggest that site resistance to cheatgrass after fire and fuel control treatments decreases with a warmer and drier climate. This emphasizes the need for management actions to maintain and enhance perennial herb cover, such as implementing appropriate grazing management, and revegetating sites that have low abundance of perennial herbs in conjunction with fuel control treatments.