Short- and Long-term Changes in Elk Use and Forage Production in Sagebrush Communities Following Prescribed Burning

Research paper by Fred Van Dyke, Jeffrey A. Darragh

Indexed on: 24 Mar '06Published on: 24 Mar '06Published in: Biodiversity and Conservation


Burning shrub and grassland communities often leads to increases in plant production and nutritional quality that benefit herbivores, resulting in increased herbivore use of burned areas. Increased use has been ascribed more specifically to changes in plant community structure, community composition and diversity, nutritional quality, and seasonal availability. These hypotheses can be evaluated more precisely if changes in plant communities following burning are monitored concurrently with changes in herbivore use, especially in longer-term studies. From 1988 to 1999, we examined responses of elk (Cervus elaphus) following prescribed burning of areas burned in 1984 and 1988 that had been formerly dominated by mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) in south-central Montana (USA), with concurrent monitoring of changes in plant production, nutritional quality, and community composition. Elk made increased use of burned sites up to 15 years after burning. Burning transformed big sagebrush-dominated communities into native herbaceous communities that persisted for 15 years without sagebrush reinvasion. Forage biomass and protein content remained higher on burned sites for 15 years, although differences were not significant in every year and declined as time elapsed after burning. Forage production, forage protein, and elk use were temporally correlated, suggesting the possibility that grazing by elk might have contributed to persistence of elevated plant production and protein levels on burned sites.