Date of this Version
Starns, H. D., S. D. Fuhlendorf, R. D. Elmore, D. Twidwell, E. T. Thacker, T. J. Hovick, and B. Luttbeg. 2019. Recoupling fire and grazing reduces wildland fuel loads on rangelands. Ecosphere 10(1):e02578. 10.1002/ecs2.2578
Fire suppression and exclusion, the historically dominant paradigm of fire management, has resulted in major modifications of fire-dependent ecosystems worldwide. These changes are partially credited with a recent increase in wildfire number and extent, as well as more extreme fire behavior. Fire and herbivory historically interacted, and research has shown that the interaction creates a unique mosaic of vegetation heterogeneity that each disturbance alone does not create. Because fire and grazing have largely been decoupled in modern times, the degree to which the interaction affects fuels and fire regimes has not yet been quantified. We evaluated effects of fire-only and pyric herbivory on rangeland fuels and fire behavior simulated using BehavePlus at four sites across the southern Great Plains.We predicted patches managed via pyric herbivory would maintain lower fuel loads, and less intense simulated fire behavior than fire alone. We found that time since fire was a significant predictor of fuel loads and simulated fire behavior characteristics at all sites. Fuel loads and simulated fire behavior characteristics (flame length and rate of spread) increased with increasing time since fire in all simulated weather scenarios. Pyric herbivory mediated fuel accumulation at all sites. Mean fuel loads in fire-only treatments exceeded 5000 kg/ha within 24 months, but pyric herbivory treatments remained below 5000 kg/ha for approximately 36 months. Simulated flame lengths in fire-only treatments were consistently higher (up to 3 9 ) than in pyric herbivory treatments. Similarly, fire spread rates were higher in fire-only than in pyric herbivory treatments in all simulated weather conditions. Although all sites had potential to burn in the most extreme weather conditions, pyric herbivory reduced fuel accumulations, flame lengths, and rates of spread across all weather patterns simulated. These reductions extended the amount of time standard wildland firefighting techniques remain effective. Therefore, incorporating pyric herbivory into fuel management practices, in areas of high herbaceous productivity, increases the effectiveness of fuel treatments.