Thurber's needlegrass (Achnatherum thurberianum [Piper] Barkworth) is an important component of many sagebrush communities in the Intermountain West. Prescribed fall burning is often implemented in sagebrush plant communities to mimic historic wildfires, improve wildlife habitat, and increase livestock forage production. Burning is used because it shifts dominance from sagebrush to herbaceous vegetation. The effects of prescribed fall burning on Thurber's needlegrass are largely unexplored. The purpose of this study was to determine the response of Thurber's needlegrass to prescribed fall burning. A randomized block design was used, and each block consisted of a fall burned and unburned (control) Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. wyomingensis [Beetle & A. Young] S. L. Welsh)–bunchgrass communities. Response variables measured in the first and second years after burns were Thurber's needlegrass community foliar cover and density, vegetative and reproductive biomass, photosynthetic rates, tissue carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) content, and N (15N:14N) and C (13C:12C) isotope ratios. Density of Thurber's needlegrass in both postburn years and cover in the second postburn year were not different between treatments (P > 0.05), but cover was less in the burned than control treatment in the first postburn year (P = 0.008). Carbon isotope ratios in Thurber's needlegrass differed between the burn (−25.9 ± 0.1 SE) and control (−26.3 ± 0.1 SE) treatments in the first postburn year (P = 0.019). Nitrogen isotope ratios indicated nitrogen was more available in the burned than control treatment in both years (P < 0.05). Photosynthetic rates of Thurber's needlegrass were also generally greater in the burned than control treatment (P = 0.045). Our results suggest burning altered the availability of resources to Thurber's needlegrass plants. Our results also suggest that prescribed fall burning is not detrimental to Thurber's needlegrass and, thus, can be used as a method to shift dominance from sagebrush to herbaceous vegetation.
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Vol. 61 • No. 2