Restoring fire as an ecological process in shortgrass prairie ecosystems: initial effects of prescribed burning during the dormant and growing seasons
Prior to Anglo-European settlement, fire was a major ecological process influencing the structure, composition and productivity of shortgrass prairie ecosystems on the Great Plains. However during the past 125 years, the frequency and extent of grassland fire has dramatically declined as a result of the systematic heavy grazing by large herds of domestic cattle and sheep which reduced the available levels of fine fuel and organized fire suppression efforts that succeeded in altering the natural fire regime. The greatly diminished role of recurrent fire in these ecosystems is thought to be responsible for ecologically adverse shifts in the composition, structure and diversity of these grasslands, leading specifically to the rise of ruderal species and invasion by less fire-tolerant species. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the ecological effects of fire season and frequency on the shortgrass prairie and to determine the means by which prescribed fire can best be restored in this ecosystem to provide the greatest benefit for numerous resource values. Plant cover, diversity, biomass and nutrient status, litter cover and soil chemistry were measured prior to and following fire treatments on a buffalograss-blue grama shortgrass prairie in northeastern New Mexico. Dormant-season fire was followed by increases in grass cover, forb cover, species richness and concentrations of foliar P, K, Ca, Mg and Mn. Growing-season fire produced declines in the cover of buffalograss, graminoids and forbs and increases in litter cover and levels of foliar P, K, Ca and Mn. Although no changes in soil chemistry were observed, both fire treatments caused decreases in herbaceous production, with standing biomass resulting from growing-season fire ~600 kg/ha and dormant-season fire ~1200 kg/ha, compared with controls ~1800 kg/ha. The initial findings of this long-term experiment suggest that dormant-season burning may be the preferable method for restoring fire in shortgrass prairie ecosystems where fire has been excluded for a prolonged time period.