Researchers have ascribed use of areas by grazers after burning to changes in plant community structure, community composition, nutritional quality, and seasonal availability. Researchers can better evaluate these alternatives if they monitor changes in plant communities following burning concurrently with changes in animal use. We examined responses of elk (Cervus elaphus) to prescribed burning of areas dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) in south-central Montana, USA, within which we monitored changes in plant production, nutritional quality, and community composition and diversity from 1989 to 1999. Elk increased use of burned sites 1–2 years after burning, then reduced use to levels associated with preburn conditions over the next 3–10 years. Burning transformed low-diversity, sagebrush-dominated communities into relatively high-diversity, grass- and forb-dominated communities that persisted for 10 years, but forage biomass and protein content declined on burned sites after initial short-term increases. Changes in elk use closely tracked changes in production and nutritional quality of plants. Therefore, we concluded that increases in quantity and quality of forage were the primary cause for increased use of burned sites by elk. Managers may observe only short-term responses from elk following burning but can expect longer-term increases in plant diversity and persistence of grass–forb communities on burned sites for >10 years that may be important to elk or other grazing ungulates.
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Vol. 71 • No. 1