Vegetation trends due to climatic changes are difficult to separate from disturbances caused by varying land uses. To separate climatic influences from livestock grazing and fire disturbances within sagebrush steppe, we compared vegetation structure and productivity during 2 periods (10-year sequences of data from the late 1950s to the late 1960s and 3 years in the early 1990s) at 12 stands within 3 relict areas in or near the Great Rift of southern Idaho. Year-to-year fluctuations in annual net aboveground phytomass accumulation (ANAPA) were considerable in response to varying climate during both periods. More importantly, an apparently significant increase in ANAPA was observed during the latter study period. However, this apparent increase may have been due to the unusually wet conditions of 1993. Throughout both study periods, ANAPA was even more positively correlated with species richness than with precipitation, although both influences were statistically significant. Aggregation of these data by plant growth forms showed that shrubs, particularly sagebrushes, have progressively increased their proportion relative to herbaceous understory. This directional (successional) change in the proportional contributions of growth forms to ANAPA was probably due more to long-term absence of fire at these isolated locations than to any detectable climate change or lack of grazing. This finding reduces our confidence in the use of such areas as reference sites for monitoring or as living examples for restoration efforts, but it does increase our understanding of vegetation dynamics within sagebrush steppe.
Acronyms.–ANAPA–annual net aboveground phytomass accumulations, ANOVA–analysis of variance, ANPP–aboveground net primary production, COV–coefficient of variation, CY–crop year, CYP–crop-year precipitation, ES–ecological site, MANOVA–multivariate analysis of variance, MAT–mean annual temperature, NRCS–Natural Resources Conservation Service, PDSI–Palmer Drought Severity Index, RUE–rainfall use efficiency.