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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


Woody species encroachment into herbaceous and shrub-dominated vegetations is a concern in many rangeland ecosystems of the world. Arrival of woody species into affected rangelands leads to changes in the spatial structure of vegetation and alterations of biophysical processes. In the western USA, encroachment of pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) tree species into sagebrush steppes poses a threat to the proper ecohydrological functioning of these ecosystems. Prescribed fire has been proposed and used as one rangeland improvement practice to restore sagebrush steppe from pinyon-juniper encroachment. Short-term effects of burning on the ecohydrologic response of these systems have been well documented and often include a period of increased hydrologic and erosion vulnerability immediately after burning. Long-term ecohydrologic response of sagebrush steppe ecosystems to fire is poorly understood due to lack of cross-scale studies on treated sites. The aim of this study is to evaluate long-term vegetation, hydrologic, and erosion responses at two pinyon-juniper-encroached sagebrush sites 9 years after prescribed fire was applied as a restoration treatment. Thirty-six rainfall simulation experiments on 6 m × 2 m plots were conducted for 45 min under two conditions: a dry run (70 mm h−1; dry antecedent soils) and a wet run (111 mm h−1; wet antecedent soils). Runoff and erosion responses were compared between burned and unburned plots. Overall, increases in herbaceous cover in the shrub-interspace areas (intercanopy area between trees) at both sites 9 years post-burn resulted in runoff- and erosion-reduction benefits, especially under the wet runs. While the initially more degraded site characterized by 80% bare ground pre-burn, registered a higher overall increase (40% increase) in canopy cover, greater post-fire reductions in runoff and erosion were observed at the less degraded site (57% bare ground pre-burn). Runoff and erosion for the wet runs decreased respectively by 6.5-fold and 76-fold at the latter site on the burned plots relative to control plots, whereas these decreases were more muted at the more degraded site (2.5 and 3-fold respectively). Significant fragmentation of flow paths observed at the more-degraded site 9 years post-fire, suggests a decreased hydrologic connectivity as a mechanism of runoff and erosion reduction during post-fire recovery.