Invasion of exotic annual grasses (EAG) and increased wildfire have led to an emphasis on managing rangeland plant communities for resistance to invasion and resilience to disturbances. In sagebrush steppe and similar rangelands, perennial bunchgrasses and particularly their roots are hypothesized to be primary contributors to resistance and resilience. We asked how bunchgrass root abundance relates to annual grass invasion and aboveground indicators of bunchgrass vigor that are more readily measured, such as plant height. We used a standardized US Department of Agriculture protocol for root measurement in 445 excavations made in 2016 – 2018 across a topographically and ecologically varied region of sagebrush steppe burned in the 2015 Soda fire in the Northern Great Basin, United States. Nearly all (99%) bunchgrasses, including seedlings, had deeper roots than the surrounding annual grasses (mean depth of annuals = 6.8 ± 3.3 cm), and 88% of seedlings remained rooted in response to the “tug test” (uprooting resistance to ∼ 1 kg of upward pull on shoot), with smaller plants (mean height and basal diameters < 20 cm and < 2 cm, respectively) more likely to fail the test regardless of their root abundance. Lateral roots of bunchgrasses were scarcer in larger basal gaps (interspace between perennials) but were surprisingly not directly related to cover of surrounding EAG. However, EAG cover increased with the size of basal gaps and decreased with greater basal diameter of bunchgrass (in addition to prefire EAG abundance), albeit with a low r2. These results provide some support for 1) the importance of basal gaps and bunchgrass diameters as indicators of both vulnerability to annual grass invasion and bunchgrass root abundance and 2) the need for more detailed methods for root measurement than used here in order to substantiate their usefulness in understanding rangeland resistance and resilience.
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