Long-term response patterns of tallgrass prairie to frequent summer burning

TitleLong-term response patterns of tallgrass prairie to frequent summer burning
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2008
AuthorsTowne, GE, Kemp, KE
JournalRangeland Ecology and Management
Pagination509 -520
Accession NumberKNZ001225
Keywordsburn season, fire ecology, grassland vegetation, growing-season fire

Knowledge of how tallgrass prairie vegetation responds to fire in the late growing season is relatively sparse and is based upon studies that are either spatially or temporally limited. To gain a more robust perspective of vegetation response to summer burning and to determine if repeated summer fire can drive vegetational changes in native tallgrass prairie, we evaluated species cover and richness over a 14-yr period on different topographic positions from ungrazed watersheds that were burned biennially in the growing season. We found that annual forbs were the primary beneficiaries of summer burning, but their fluctuations varied inconsistently among years. Concomitantly, species richness and diversity increased significantly with summer burning but remained stable through time with annual spring burning. After 14 yr, species richness was 28% higher in prairie that was burned in the summer than in prairie burned in the spring. Canopy cover of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman) and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans [L.] Nash) increased significantly over time with both summer and spring burning, whereas heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides [L.] Nesom), aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium [Nutt.] Nesom), and sedges (Carex spp.) increased in response to only summer burning. Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis L.) cover declined in both spring-burned and summer-burned watersheds. Repeated burning in either spring or summer did not reduce the cover or frequency of any woody species. Most perennial species were neutral in their reaction to summer fire, but a few species responded with large and inconsistent temporal fluctuations that overwhelmed any clear patterns of change. Although summer burning did not preferentially encourage spring-flowering forbs or suppress dominance of the warm-season grasses, it is a potentially useful tool to increase community heterogeneity in ungrazed prairie.