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Ecological Society of America

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


Woody plant expansions are altering ecosystem structure and function, as well as fire regimes, around the globe. Tree-reduction treatments are widely implemented in expanding woodlands to reduce fuel loads, increase ecological resilience, and improve habitat, but few studies have measured treatment outcomes over long timescales or large geographic areas. The Sagebrush Treatment Evaluation Project (SageSTEP) evaluated the ecological effects of prescribed fire and cut-and-leave treatments in sagebrush communities experiencing tree expansion in North American cold desert shrublands. We used 10 yr of data from the SageSTEP network to test how treatments interacted with pre-treatment tree dominance, soil climate, and time since treatment to affect plant functional groups and dominant species. Non-sprouting shrub (Artemisia spp.), sprouting shrub, perennial graminoid, and annual grass responses depended on tree dominance and soil climate, and responses were related to the dominant species' life-history traits. Sites with warm and dry soils showed increased perennial graminoid but reduced Artemisia shrub cover across the tree dominance gradient after prescribed burning, while sites with cool and moist soils showed favorable post-burn responses for both functional types, particularly at low to moderate tree dominance. Cut-and-leave treatments sustained or increased native perennial plant functional groups and experienced smaller increases in exotic annual plants in both soil climates across the tree dominance gradient. Both treatments reduced biocrust cover. Selecting appropriate tree-reduction treatments to achieve desired long-term outcomes requires consideration of dominant species, site environmental conditions, and the degree of woodland expansion. Careful selection of management treatments will reduce the likelihood of undesirable consequences to the ecosystem.

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