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Over the past century, rangelands worldwide have experienced changes in vegetation cover and structure, many transitioning from grass-dominated to shrub-dominated systems (Archer et al. 2017; Fuhlendorf et al. 2017). In North America, such transitions are primarily a consequence of livestock management and fire exclusion practices of Euro-American settlers (Bray 1904; Archer 1989; Fuhlendorf and Smeins 1997). These shrub-dominated systems are often less productive for wildlife and livestock and may have crossed a threshold which cannot be reversed via common restoration practices such as prescribed fire (Ansley and Castellano 2006; Ratajczak et al. 2016). Oftentimes, the inability of prescribed fire to succeed at crossing this threshold is the result of insufficient fuel loading or inadequate fire intensity due to prescription parameters (Havstad and James 2010; Twidwell et al. 2016). However, recent work has demonstrated that burning under more extreme conditions (e.g. higher temperatures, lower fine fuel moisture) can slow or change the course of encroachment (Twidwell et al. 2013; Twidwell et al. 2016). Many encroaching shrub species are capable of persisting after fire via resprouting from protected buds (Bond and Midgley 2001). Such mechanisms pose challenges for land managers, particularly because resprouting often results in a higher number of stems per individual plant. Mesquite (Prosopis spp.) shrubs are well-known for their ability to persist to varying degrees following disturbance due to fire, chemical, and mechanical treatments. Due to historical livestock management and fire suppression practices, honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) has increased in dominance and abundance in the southern Great Plains since the beginning of Euro-American settlement (Bray 1904; Archer 1989). Although prescribed fire has increased in acceptance as a method to reduce encroachment of mesquite, low-intensity fires performed during the dormant season rarely cause mortality (Wright and Bailey 1980; Ansley et al. 1998), especially when they are performed as a single treatment rather than as part of a comprehensive management plan. However, recent studies have demonstrated that more intense fires conducted outside the dormant season are capable of reducing resprouters (including mesquite), particularly during periods of drought (Twidwell et al. 2016). We evaluated impacts of fire intensity and abiotic factors on persistence of honey mesquite, a species of concern for managers in the southern Great Plains.more » « less
Wilderness areas are important natural laboratories for scientists and managers working to understand fire. In the last half-century, shifts in the culture and policy of land management agencies have facilitated the management practice of letting some naturally ignited fires burn, allowing fire to fulfill its ecological role and increasing the extent of fire-related research opportunities. With the goal of identifying the global scientific advances enabled by this paradigm shift in wilderness fire management, we conducted a systematic review of publications that either (1) selected protected areas for investigation because of an active fire regime enabled by wilderness fire management, (2) studied modern fires or fire regimes deliberately located in a wilderness area, or (3) conducted applied research to support wilderness fire management.
Our systematic review returned a sample of 222 publications that met these criteria, with an increase in wilderness fire science over time. Studies largely occurred in the USA and were concentrated in a relatively small number of protected areas, particularly in the Northern Rocky Mountains. As a result, this sample of wilderness fire science is highly skewed toward areas of temperate mixed-conifer forests and historical mixed-severity fire regimes. Common principal subjects of publications included fire effects (44%), wilderness fire management (18%), or fire regimes (17%), and studies tended to focus on vegetation, disturbance, or wilderness management as response variables.
This work identifies major scientific contributions facilitated by fire in wilderness, including self-limitation of fire, the effects of active fire regimes on forest and aquatic systems, barriers and potential solutions to wilderness fire management, and the effect of fire on wilderness recreation and visitor experiences. Our work reveals geographic and bioclimatic areas where more research attention is needed and highlights under-represented wilderness areas that could serve to fill these gaps. Finally, we identify priorities for future wilderness fire research, including the past and potential role of Indigenous and prescribed burning, the effects of changing climate and fire regimes on ecosystem processes, and how to overcome barriers to wilderness fire management.
Desert grassland vegetation is a key resource upon which rangelands in the southwestern US are built, and managing these ecosystems remains a critical challenge today. This experimental fire seasonality research project, in collaboration with the USFWS, USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station, and the Sevilleta LTER, is intended to provide land management agencies with information about vegetation recovery following fire under different seasonal conditions and burning treatments. This experimental research will enable the FWS to more effectively set project objectives for prescribed burning on the Sevilleta NWR to benefit not only wildlife habitat, but to better align the timing and intensity of fire to benefit the reestablishment of the dominant native grama grasses Bouteloua eriopoda and B. gracilis. Since its creation in 1973, management has been devoted to restoring the Sevilleta NWR to the natural conditions that might have been seen around the turn of the century. The Sevilleta NWR is an ideal place for research because climatic conditions, plant species composition and net primary production following wildfire have been well documented by the Sevilleta LTER. Additional experimental research is needed, however, to better inform managers about the timing and use of fire as an ecosystem restoration and management tool. This is an on-going, long-term experiment under the auspices of the Sevilleta LTER program.more » « less
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