Management of remnant tallgrass prairie by grazing or fire: Effects on plant communities and soil properties

By: , and 



Tallgrass prairie is a disturbance‐dependent ecosystem that has suffered steep declines in the midwestern United States. The necessity of disturbance, typically fire or grazing, presents challenges to managers who must apply them on increasingly small and fragmented parcels. The goal of this study was to compare effects of management using cattle grazing or fire on vegetation and soil characteristics to aid managers in making decisions regarding the kind of disturbance to apply. We selected 73 sites, of which 27 were managed solely by cattle grazing and 46 solely by fire, for at least 11 yr leading up to the study. We stratified the sites by prairie type (dry, mesic, and wet) and sampled frequency of plant species on randomly placed transects, supplemented with botanist‐directed walks, and collected and composited five soil cores on a randomly selected transect within each prairie type at each site. We calculated rarefied richness and Shannon evenness from the transect data and mean coefficient of conservatism (CofC) from the total list of species. Soil samples were analyzed for texture, bulk density, total N and C, and potential net N nitrification and mineralization. A nonmetric multidimensional scaling analysis of the plant community data revealed differences in species associated with mesic and wet prairies, but no separation by management type. Similarly, none of the vegetation variables we calculated varied by management type, as determined by mixed‐effects models, but soil bulk density was 17.5% higher and total N was 22% higher on grazed sites than burned sites. Sites burned more recently had higher species richness and mean CofC, but fire was not associated with any soil variables. Sites grazed more recently had higher bulk density, total N and C, and faster N cycling rates. Overall, 28% of plant species were found exclusively in one management type or the other, but these species did not vary in mean CofC. We conclude that, at the levels of burning and grazing intensity we studied, both management approaches produce similar C storage and vegetation responses. To maintain maximum diversity across the landscape, however, both approaches are necessary.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Management of remnant tallgrass prairie by grazing or fire: Effects on plant communities and soil properties
Series title Ecosphere
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3213
Volume 11
Issue 8
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Description e03213, 17 p.
Country United States
State Minnesota
Other Geospatial Prairie Parkland Province
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details