SPECIES: Achnatherum nelsonii
Zouhar, Kristin L. 2000. Achnatherum nelsonii.
In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online].
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service,
Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer).
Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ .
Stipa columbiana Macoun [10,25]
Stipa nelsonii Scribn. 
Stipa occidentalis Thurb. var. minor (Vasey) Hitchcoc. 
= A. n. ssp. dorei 
Stipa columbiana var. nelsonii (Scribn.) St. John [10,54]
The scientific name of Columbia needlegrass is Achnathrum nelsonii (Scribn.) Barkworth (Poaceae) [3,20,60]. Recognized subspecies are:
Achnathrum nelsonii ssp. dorei (Barkworth & J. Maze) Barkworth, Dore's needlegrass [3,20]
Achnathrum nelsonii ssp. longiaristatum (Barkworth & J. R. Maze) Barkworth 
Achnathrum nelsonii ssp. nelsonii, Columbia or William's needlegrass [3,54]
No special status
Columbia needlegrass grows throughout most of the West. It occurs from the Yukon and British Columbia east to western South Dakota, south to western Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and west to northern and eastern California, with the central Rocky Mountains as its center of distribution [10,53,21]. Dore's needlegrass (Achnatherum nelsonii ssp. dorei) does not occur in Nevada or Utah, and does occur in Texas . Achnatherum nelsonii ssp. nelsonii is not found in Texas.
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES37 Mountain meadows
FRES38 Plains grasslands
Elevation in feet
|UT||above 8,000 (2,440m)|
Columbia needlegrass is a climax species in many sagebrush and pinyon-juniper communities [15,26,28,49,50]. It has also been found to be a successional species after fire in higher elevation vegetation zones in New Mexico, and has been observed in recently burned areas .
Columbia needlegrass begins growth in early spring. In sagebrush communities, seed ripens and disseminates in early and late July, respectively . In the Sierra Nevada of California, seed generally ripens in August and September . Foliage remains green throughout a long growing season and occasionally remains green until snow falls .
Perennial needlegrasses tend to be among the least fire resistant bunchgrasses [63,64] due, in part, to their densely tufted stems . Columbia needlegrass is, however, only slightly to moderately damaged by fire , probably because it has relatively few culms per clump which may help to minimize the amount of subsurface heat transfer and subsequent damage.
The Colorado pinyon-oneseed juniper/Columbia needlegrass habitat type in the Lincoln National Forest of New Mexico may be maintained by relatively frequent, low-severity, surface fires . Here Columbia needlegrass is not only a climax species, but it is also observed in areas with fairly recent burns.
Fire-return intervals for plant communities in which Columbia needlegrass occurs are summarized below. Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which this species may occur by entering the species name in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes".
|Community or Ecosystem||Dominant Species||Fire Return Interval Range in Years|
|basin big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata||12-43 |
|mountain big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. vaseyana||5-15 |
|Wyoming big sagebrush||Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis||10-70 (40)** [65,57]|
|California montane chaparral||Ceanothus and/or Arctostaphylos spp.||50-100 |
|Rocky Mountain juniper||Juniperus scopulorum||< 35 |
|pinyon-juniper||Pinus-Juniperus spp.||< 35 |
|Colorado pinyon||Pinus edulis||10-49 |
|Rocky Mountain ponderosa pine*||Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum||2-10 |
|quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains)||Populus tremuloides||7-120 [8,32,17]|
|mountain grasslands||Pseudoroegneria spicata||3-40 (10)** |
|Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir*||Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca||25-100 |
Initial off-site colonizer (off-site, initial community)
Columbia needlegrass is generally top-killed by fire. In some instances, particularly with severe fires, soil heating caused by combustion of fine leaves at the soil surface further damages the plant. Researchers classify Columbia needlegrass as slightly to moderately damaged by fire .
Specific fire effects depend on the season of burn, phenology, plant size, and fire severity. Season of burn is of primary importance in determining the effects of fire on some needlegrasses . The related species, needle-and-thread (Hesperostipa comata), which begins growth in the early spring, is most seriously injured by midsummer fires and less seriously damaged by late spring or fall burns . Columbia needlegrass also begins growth during the early spring and a similar seasonal fire damage pattern is possible though not documented.
The effects of fire on bunch grasses are related to culm density, culm-leaf morphology, and size of the bunch. Densely clustered, leafy culms may burn long after passage of the flaming front . Columbia needlegrass has relatively few culms per clump which may help to minimize the amount of subsurface heat transfer and subsequent damage. Wright and others  classify Columbia needlegrass and western needlegrass (Achnatherum occidentale) as slightly susceptible to damage by fire in sagebrush-bunchgrass communities, whereas needle-and-thread and Thurber needlegrass (Achnatherum thurberiana) are likely to be severely damaged by the fire. This difference appears to be related to the different amounts of dead material per unit basal area between species .
Large plants of needlegrass species are more susceptible to fire-caused damage than are smaller plants . Basal area reduction has been noted in all size classes of needlegrasses, with large plants being most severely damaged . With needlegrasses in general, plant size becomes an increasingly important determinant of fire damage late in the summer .
Columbia needlegrass is slightly to moderately damaged by fire  and has a moderate to rapid (2-10 years) postburn "recovery time" . When the plant is only top-killed, regrowth can begin as early as the first post-burn season . Increases in basal diameter , height , and dry weight production [33,5] have been recorded following burning. Because Columbia needlegrass does not spread by rootstocks and must await production of seeds, the number of individual plants increases slowly after burning .
The postfire response of Columbia needlegrass varies with season and intensity of burn, size of plants, and proximity to other fuels.
Fall prescribed burning seemed to stimulate seed production in Columbia needlegrass (number of seeds per plant) in a sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) grassland site . Columbia needlegrasses had more inflorescences per plant and more florets per inflorescence contributing to greater seed production on plants in the 2-year-old burn than on adjacent unburned areas . According to Mueggler and Blaisdell , an August prescribed burn to control big sagebrush appeared to benefit Columbia needlegrass in southern Idaho. Response following a variety of treatments was as follows:
Air-dry (lbs/acre) herbage production 3 years after treatment Untreated Control August Burn Sprayed 51 123 138Similarly, Blaisdell  found that Columbia needlegrass was not significantly affected by any intensity of burn 12 years after burning. The largest increases in dry weight occurred with moderate burning as opposed to light, heavy and unburned sites .
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