U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



Ecohydrology 9, pp. 1604–1619 (2016), DOI: 10.1002/eco.1751.


U.S. government work.


Prescribed fire can be used to return wild lands to their natural fire cycle, control invasive weeds, and reduce fuel loads, but there are gaps in the understanding of post-disturbance responses of vegetation and hydrology. The impact of a prescribed fire and subsequent aspen cutting on evapotranspiration (ET) and streamflow was assessed for the Upper Sheep Creek catchment, a 26-ha headwater catchment dominated by low sagebrush, mountain big sagebrush, and aspen within the Reynolds Creek Experimental Watershed. The 2007 prescribed fire consumed 100% of the mountain big sagebrush and approximately 21% of the low sagebrush. The aspen, which were mostly untouched by the fire, were cut in the fall of 2008. Post-disturbance ET and vegetation recovery were related to the loss of rooting depth. ET recovered within 2 years on the low sagebrush area with limited rooting depth, while that on the deeper-rooted mountain big sagebrush area took 4 years to recover. ET from the aspen trees, which can sprout from existing roots, recovered within 2 years. The influence of vegetation disturbance on streamflow was assessed using both empirical time trend analysis and process-based modelling. Although both approaches suggested approximately a 20% increase in streamflow during the 6 years post-disturbance, results from the empirical time trend analysis were marginally significant (p = 0·055), while those from the process-based modelling were not statistically significant. Marginal streamflow response can be attributed to rapid post-disturbance recovery of the aspen where most of the streamflow originates.