Fire and browsing interact to alter intra-clonal stem dynamics of an encroaching shrub in tallgrass prairie

TitleFire and browsing interact to alter intra-clonal stem dynamics of an encroaching shrub in tallgrass prairie
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2021
AuthorsWedel, ER, Nippert, JB, Hartnett, DC
Pagination1039 - 1048

The expansion of woody species into grasslands has altered community structure and ecosystem function of grasslands worldwide. In tallgrass prairie of the Central Great Plains, USA, decreased fire frequency and intensity have increased the cover and abundance of woody species. In particular, clonal shrub cover has increased at accelerated rates due to vegetative reproduction and resprouting after disturbance. We measured the intra-clonal stem demography and relative growth rates (estimated change in woody biomass) of the shrub Cornus drummondii in response to fire frequency (4 vs 20year burn intervals) and simulated browsing during the 2018 and 2019 growing seasons at Konza Prairie Biological Station (Manhattan, Kansas). Overall, infrequent fire (4year burn interval) increased intra-clonal stem relative growth rates and shrub relative growth rates. Intra-clonal stem relative growth rates were reduced in unbrowsed clones in 2018 due to drought and simu-lated browsing reduced intra-clonal stem relative growth rates in 2019. Additionally, simulated browsing nearly eliminated flower production within clones but did not affect intra-clonal stem mortality or recruitment within a growing season. Fire in conjunction with simulated browsing reduced estimated relative growth rates for entire shrub clones. Browsed shrubs that experienced prescribed fire in 2017 had reduced intra-clonal stem densities compared to unbrowsed shrubs and stem densities of browsed shrubs did not recover in 2018 or 2019. These results illustrate that infrequent fire alone promotes the expansion of clonal shrubs in tallgrass prairie and multiple interacting disturbances (e.g., fire and browsing) are required to control the spread of clonal shrubs into grasslands.