Expansion of woody plants in tallgrass prairie: a 15 year study of fire and fire-grazing interactions

TitleExpansion of woody plants in tallgrass prairie: a 15 year study of fire and fire-grazing interactions
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2002
AuthorsBriggs, JM, Knapp, AK, Brock, B
JournalThe American Midland Naturalist
Pagination287 -294
Accession NumberKNZ002
Keywordstallgrass prairie, woody plant

Temporal changes in the abundance of trees and a common shrub, Cornus drummondii, were quantified for 15 y (1981–1996) in seven tallgrass prairie watersheds in Northeast Kansas. Woody plant responses to different fire frequencies and grazing were assessed with a data set that included >9000 individuals. Although 15 tree species were included in this data set, only four (Juniperus virginiana, Celtis occidentalis, Gleditsia triacanthos and Ulmus americana) were sufficiently abundant for detailed analysis. Over the 15 y study tree density increased by two- to 10-fold, except in watersheds burned annually where woody plants remained almost completely absent throughout the study. Although increased woody plant abundance was expected in watersheds protected from fire, tree and shrub density also increased substantially in watersheds burned only once in 4 y. An intermediate fire frequency (burned every 3–5 y) actually increased the abundance of C. drummondii relative to a low fire frequency (burned only once in 15 y). Moreover, a severe wildfire in 1991, which affected all watersheds, did not markedly reverse this pattern of increase in abundance in most tree species. Four years after the addition of native herbivores (Bos bison) to three of the long-term experimental watersheds (infrequently and annually burned) woody plant abundance increased by four- and 40-fold, respectively, compared to corresponding ungrazed watersheds. Thus, the presence of large ungulate grazers in tallgrass prairie resulted in a significant increase in woody plant abundance. The most parsimonious explanation for this phenomenon is that fire intensity and extent was reduced in grazed grasslands allowing greater success of woody species.