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Wildfire effects and post-fire responses of an invasive mesquite population: the interactive importance of grazing and non-native herbaceous species invasion

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Abstract Aim 

To determine how responses of an established velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina Woot.) population to a 2002 wildfire were shaped by grazing and non-native herbaceous species invasions, both of which influenced fire behaviour. Location 

The study was conducted on contiguous ranches (one actively grazed by cattle, one that had not been grazed since 1968) in the Sonoita Valley of southern Arizona. Plant communities on both ranches were comprised of Chihuahuan semi-desert grassland, savanna, and Madrean evergreen woodland ecosystems, but large areas were dominated by Lehmann and Boer lovegrass, African grass species that were introduced more than 50 years ago. Methods 

We selected 243 individuals that had been defoliated and bark scorched during the fire using a stratified random design based on pre-fire grazing status and dominant grass cover. After the start of the 2003 growing season, we recorded individual tree characteristics, fire damage, and measures of post-fire response, and tested for relationships among classes of: grazing status, bark damage, dominant grass cover type, abundance of live and dead aboveground branches, flowering status, and sprout number and size. Analyses of fire damage and post-fire response were interpreted with respect to values of fireline intensity, scorch height and energy release that were projected by a fire behaviour model,nexus. Results 

Nearly all of the trees on grazed areas suffered low levels of fire damage, while a majority on ungrazed areas suffered moderate to severe damage. Trees on grazed areas consequently had significantly more leaf-bearing twigs and branches in 2003 but a very low number of root sprouts, while individuals on ungrazed areas had a greater density of root sprouts but little post-fire dead branching and almost no living branches. Among the ungrazed grassland types, more than 75% of the trees on Boer lovegrass plots suffered moderate to severe damage, while a similar percentage of trees in native grass areas suffered low damage. These differences were: (1) attributed to variations in fire characteristics that were caused by differences in litter production and removal, and (2) ecologically significant because trees in the severe damage class showed almost no aboveground post-fire branching, either live or dead in 2003, while trees in the low damage class exhibited a greater amount of both. Main conclusions 

Our results affirm the notion that effective management of western grasslands where mesquite encroachment has or will become a problem requires a better understanding of how interactions among key ecosystem influences (e.g. fire, grazing, non-native species) affect not only mesquite seedlings and saplings but also larger, established individuals and thereby the long-term structure and functioning of semi-desert grassland ecosystems. As managers shift their focus from eradication to management of mesquite in western grasslands and savannas, our results provide insights into how prescribed fires (and their effects on mesquite populations) differ from wildfires and how such effects may be mediated by the altered land uses and ecosystem characteristics that now exist in many western ecosystems.
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Keywords: Arizona; USA; fire simulation; grazing; invasive species; lovegrass; mesquite; wildfire; woody encroachment

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: USDA Forest Service Remote Sensing Laboratory, Sacramento, CA, USA

Publication date: 2005-03-01

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