Fire is a dominant and highly visible disturbance in sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) ecosystems. In lower elevation, xeric sagebrush communities, the role of fire has changed in recent decades from an infrequent disturbance maintaining a landscape mosaic and facilitating community processes to frequent events that alter sagebrush communities to exotic vegetation, from which restoration is unlikely. Because of cheatgrass invasion, fire-return intervals in these sagebrush ecosystems have decreased from an historical pattern (pre-European settlement) of 30 to >100 yr to 5-15 yr. In other sagebrush communities, primarily higher elevation ecosystems, the lack of fire has allowed transitions to greater dominance by sagebrush, loss of herbaceous understory, and expansion of juniper-pinyon woodlands. Response by birds living in sagebrush habitats to fire was related to the frequency, size, complexity (or patchiness), and severity of the burns. Small-scale fires that left patchy distributions of sagebrush did not influence bird populations. However, large-scale fires that resulted in large grassland expanses and isolated existing sagebrush patches reduced the probability of occupancy by sagebrush-obligate species. Populations of birds also declined in sagebrush ecosystems with increasing dominance by juniper (Juniperus spp.) and pinyon (Pinus spp.) woodlands. Our understanding of the effects of fire on sagebrush habitats and birds in these systems is limited. Almost all studies of fire effects on birds have been opportunistic, correlative, and lacking controls. We recommend using the large number of prescribed burns to develop strong inferences about cause-and-effect relationships. Prescribed burning is complicated and highly contentious, particularly in low-elevation, xeric sagebrush communities. Therefore, we need to use the unique opportunities provided by planned burns to understand the spatial and temporal influence of fire on sagebrush landscapes and birds. In particular, we need to develop larger-scale and longer-term research to identify the underlying mechanisms that produce the patterns of bird responses to fire in sagebrush ecosystems.
Additional publication details
The role of fire in structuring sagebrush habitats and bird communities