Woody plant expansion and infilling into nonwooded rangeland ecosystems have been observed worldwide. Such expansion may lead to declines in herbaceous understory plant communities and increased fuel loads in rangelands. Under the US National Fire Plan, fuel-reduction treatments have been implemented over vast expanses of western forest types to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire and restore historical ecosystem structure, function, and diversity. The benefits of fuel-reduction may, however, also carry inherent ecological risk such as promoting non-native species colonization. Here, we compare understory plant community responses to three commonly used fuel-reduction treatments with seeding applications in an upland piñon (Pinus edulis Engelm.)— juniper (Juniperus osteosperma [Torr.] Little) woodland on the Colorado Plateau: 1) mechanical mastication, 2) lop and slash piled then burned (pile burn), and 3) lop and scatter followed by a broadcast burn (broadcast burn). Data were collected pretreatment (2009) and one (2010), two (2011), and six (2015) growing seasons post treatment. We found while understory perennial herbaceous plant cover remained low 1 and 2 yr post treatment, it increased by > 700% in all fuel-reduction treatment plots six growing seasons post treatment. Furthermore, while we observed minor increases in invasive annual grass, Bromus tectorum L. (cheatgrass), colonization in 2010 and 2011, there were substantial increases in B. tectorum cover by 2015. B. tectorum cover varied among treatments with the greatest cover in the unseeded mastication plot at nearly 30%. Seeding applications did not increase overall seed mix species cover but enhanced seed mix species richness and, thus, may have increased resistance to B. tectorum invasion in seeded treatment plots. Our findings offer valuable insights to the ecological consequences of fuel-reduction activities in piñon-juniper woodlands through comparison of common fuel-reduction treatments and seeding applications and highlight differences in understory plant community responses to treatments across short to longer time scales.
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