SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum


Achnatherum thurberianum: INTRODUCTORY

INTRODUCTORY

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
AUTHORSHIP AND CITATION:

Archer, Amy J. 2000. Achnatherum thurberianum. 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/ [].



ABBREVIATION:

ACHTHU

SYNONYMS:

Stipa thurberiana Piper [17]

NRCS PLANT CODE [85]:

ACTH7

COMMON NAMES:

Thurber needlegrass

TAXONOMY:

The scientific name of Thurber needlegrass is Achnatherum thurberianum (Piper) Barkworth (Poaceae) [39]. This species hybridizes with Indian ricegrass (A. hymenoides) [44,81].

LIFE FORM:

Graminoid

FEDERAL LEGAL STATUS:

No special status

OTHER STATUS:

No entry


DISTRIBUTION AND OCCURRENCE

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION:

Thurber needlegrass occurs in eastern parts of Washington, Oregon, and California; and across northern Nevada to southern Idaho, southwestern Montana, and northeastern Wyoming [17].

ECOSYSTEMS [36]:

FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES29 Sagebrush
FRES34 Chaparral-mountain shrub
FRES35 Pinyon-juniper
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands

STATES:
CA ID MT NV OR UT WA WY
  BLM PHYSIOGRAPHIC REGIONS [6]:

3 Southern Pacific Border
4 Sierra Mountains
5 Columbia Plateau
6 Upper Basin and Range
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin

KUCHLER [50] PLANT ASSOCIATIONS:

K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa Forest
K023 Juniper-pinyon woodland
K024 Juniper steppe woodland
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K050 Fescue-wheatgrass
K051 Wheatgrass-bluegrass
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass

SAF COVER TYPES [33]:

210 Interior Douglas-fir
237 Interior ponderosa pine
238 Western juniper
239 Pinyon-juniper

SRM (RANGELAND) COVER TYPES [74]:

101 Bluebunch wheatgrass
102 Idaho fescue
103 Green fescue
105 Antelope bitterbrush-Idaho fescue
107 Western juniper/big sagebrush/bluebunch wheatgrass
210 Bitterbrush
302 Bluebunch wheatgrass-Sandberg bluegrass
305 Idaho fescue-Richardson needlegrass
312 Rough fescue-Idaho fescue
322 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany-bluebunch wheatgrass
402 Mountain big sagebrush
403 Wyoming big sagebrush
405 Black sagebrush
406 Low sagebrush
415 Curlleaf mountain-mahogany
607 Wheatgrass-needlegrass

HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES:

Thurber needlegrass is an important component of forested, steppe, and shrub-steppe communities of the Pacific Northwest and Great Basin regions [5,35,79,93,104]. Habitats in which Thurber needlegrass is commonly found include sagebrush (Artemisia spp.) deserts [22,25,32,41,81], and open juniper woodlands [30,48,49,54]. This grass is an indicator of climax in a number of sagebrush/grassland, pinyon-juniper (Pinus-Juniperus spp.), and western juniper (J. occidentalis) habitat types. It may dominate the herbaceous layer [41] or exist as a subordinate in communities where the vegetation is dominated by bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), or needle-and-thread grass (Hesperostipa comata) [20]. In big sagebrush (A. tridentata)/grassland, Thurber needlegrass typically dominates the driest sites (8-10 inches (203-254 mm) precipitation); bluebunch wheatgrass dominates the intermediate sites (11-13 inches (279-330 mm) precipitation); and Idaho fescue dominates the wettest sites (14-16 inches (356-406 mm) precipitation) [96].

Species commonly associated with Thurber needlegrass include big sagebrush in Oregon [45,46,51] and Idaho [28,29,40,47]; low sagebrush (A. arbuscula) in Nevada [40,47]; Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda) in Washington [52], southeast Oregon [45,55], and Nevada [28,29]; bluebunch wheatgrass in southeast Oregon [45] and Nevada [28,29]; bottlebrush squirreltail (Elymus elymoides) in southeast Oregon [45]; and cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) in Nevada [32].

References describing Thurber needlegrass as a community or habitat dominant or codominant include:

Vegetation and soils of the Rock Springs Watershed [8]
An ecological reconnaissance of the Artemisia steppe on the east central Owyhee uplands of Oregon [18]
Habitat characteristics of the Silver Lake mule deer range [21]
Vegetation-soil relationships in some Artemisia types in northern Harney and Lake Counties [24]
Plant communities and habitat types in the Lava Beds National Monument, California [31]
Sagebrush-grass habitat types of southern Idaho [41]
Old-growth juniper and pinyon woodlands [59]
Population dynamics after wildfires in sagebrush grasslands [102]


MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
IMPORTANCE TO LIVESTOCK AND WILDLIFE:

Thurber needlegrass is valuable forage for livestock and wildlife [35,76,83]. It is an important forage grass for cattle in Washington, Oregon, and Nevada [7,15,31,65,86,88], domestic sheep in Oregon [78], and wild horses in southeastern Oregon (comprising 16% of the annual diet) [55]. In a southeastern Oregon native shrub-steppe community, fawns of pronghorn preferred early-growth Thurber needlegrass [83]. Although the seeds are apparently not injurious, grazing animals avoid them when they begin to mature. Livestock, especially domestic sheep, sometimes graze the leaves closely, leaving the stems untouched [84]. Grazing stress reduced average leaf length by 21% and reduced flowering culms by 6.5% at the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve in south-central Washington [68].

Grasses, including Thurber needlegrass, of the southern Idaho region are an especially important segment of the vegetation as their seeds are valuable to birds and small mammals. Their leaves and stems are used by rabbits, deer, and other herbivores, and they provide protective cover to many small and medium-sized animals [79]. Willis and Miller [94] reported many small mammals including Great Basin pocket mice, montane meadow mice, yellow-pine chipmunks, and white-footed deer mice were prevalent in the Juniper Mountain study area in Oregon, where Thurber needlegrass was abundant. This perennial grass is also a major food source for black-tailed jackrabbits in southern Idaho [34,42,43].

Birds found in large numbers in the Lava Beds National Monument in California, where Thurber needlegrass has a constancy value of 96.7%, include the northern flicker, scrub jay, common bushtit, and blue-gray gnatcatcher [82]. Sage grouse hens were found to be abundant in a Wyoming big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. wyomingensis)/Thurber needlegrass cover type in eastern Oregon [4].

 

PALATABILITY:

Thurber needlegrass produces a fairly large amount of leafage that is usually of "good," although not choice, palatability for all classes of livestock. It is most palatable in the spring and early summer while the plants are young and succulent. As the species matures, the leaves become somewhat tough for domestic sheep, but are still grazed to some extent [84].

NUTRITIONAL VALUE:

Crude protein is relatively high (18%) in Thurber needlegrass in early summer, but becomes low (6-10%) during early or middle stages of seed formation [40]. However, the value of this grass as forage is relatively higher in the fall than in midsummer, because it remains green after most of the grasses have dried up [84].

The following nutritional components of Thurber needlegrass were measured in Silver Lake, Oregon [40]:

Crude Protein Calcium Phosphorus Crude Fiber Crude Fat Digestibility
March 16% 0.25% 19% 2.5%
April 17% 0.20% 0.28% 19% 2.5% 50%
May 18% 0.20% 0.24% 24% 2.0% 40%
June 13% 0.15% 0.20% 29% 1.5% 30%
July 10% 0.20% 0.16% 26% 2.5% 35%
Aug. 8% 0.20% 0.14% 26% 3.0% 32%
Sept. 7% 0.20% 0.13% 26% 3.0% 30%
Oct. 6% 0.20% 26% 2.5% 25%
Nov. 5% 0.20% 28% 2.0%
 

COVER VALUE:

Thurber needlegrass provides protective cover to many small and medium-sized animals [79]. In a southeast Oregon big sagebrush ecosystem, sage grouse use perennial bunchgrasses for cover, and the residual grass cover around the sage grouse nests has been found to be a major factor reducing nest depredation [99]. A Wyoming big sagebrush/Thurber needlegrass cover type hosted pre-laying sage grouse hens in eastern Oregon [4].

VALUE FOR REHABILITATION OF DISTURBED SITES:

The success of rehabilitation rests heavily on the amount of competition from the alien annual grass, cheatgrass [105], since it is a highly successful competitor with Thurber needlegrass seedlings [32,102]. Methods of manual seed planting were assessed and it was found that more Thurber needlegrass seedlings emerged in the standard and deep furrow seeding treatments than in broadcast treatments. Thurber needlegrass was found to have higher frequency in plowed soil than in unplowed soil [95].

OTHER VALUES AND USES:

No entry

OTHER MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS:

Livestock grazing and fire have been recognized as potentially detrimental to the maintenance of perennial grasses such as Thurber needlegrass in sagebrush/grass communities [29,60,97]. This species increases under protection from livestock grazing [68]. After 30 years of rest from grazing, a 20-acre (8 ha) tract of eroded sagebrush/grass range in northern Nevada increased its Thurber needlegrass population 7-fold [68]; however, Thurber needlegrass decreased when protected from grazing in a Wyoming big sagebrush/Thurber needlegrass community [29]. In Nevada, basal area of Thurber needlegrass in a big sagebrush/Thurber needlegrass community type decreased under heavy grazing during the growing season [29].

A single defoliation, particularly during the boot state, can reduce subsequent herbage production and root mass and possibly lower the competitive ability of Thurber needlegrass [35]. A grazing system which allows seed production, trampling of plant seed, and a non-use period may increase the establishment of new plants in interspaces [26].


BOTANICAL AND ECOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS:

Thurber needlegrass is a native, perennial, cool-season bunchgrass [63,81]. This species is densely tufted with erect culms 12 to 24 inches (30-60 cm) tall, and involute blades 4 to 10 inches (10-25 cm) long and 0.04 to 0.08 inch (1-2 mm) wide. The culms are narrow, erect, and few flowered [44]. Inflorescence characteristics include 3- to 9-inch- (7-24 cm) long panicles and single-flowered spikelets with sharp calluses and awned lemmas [81]. The crown typically acquires a circular appearance, as the plant dies from the center outward [24]. Maximum reported rooting depth of Thurber needlegrass in Idaho is 24 inches (61 cm) [75].

RAUNKIAER LIFE FORM [64]:

Hemicryptophyte

REGENERATION PROCESSES:

Thurber needlegrass reproduces from seeds and tillers [81]. However, regeneration is usually by seed on sites where the grass has been killed by fire [41]. Reestablishment on burned sites may be relatively slow due to low germination and seedling vigor [41], and because seed production is usually "low" [81]. Heavy seed production after fire has been reported in central Oregon [60,90]. Because the seed is undesirable to livestock, a large portion matures, allowing for fairly good reproduction rates [84] even in grazed areas. In a controlled environment study, Thurber needlegrass had a maximum germination rate of 25% and an optimum germination temperature of 59-77 degrees Fahrenheit (15-25oC) [53].

In south central Idaho, a litter of twisted moss (Tortula ruralis), big sagebrush, and green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) retarded germination and early growth of Thurber needlegrass, but stimulated growth 4 weeks after germination [71].

SITE CHARACTERISTICS:

Thurber needlegrass is commonly found in semiarid landscapes [1,52,56,57,58], and occurs on a variety of soil types [1,42,58], most of which are dry and coarse textured [81]. This species is often found on arid hillsides [48,97], and is most prevalent on north and east slopes where there is more moisture and less variation in temperature [38,48,91].

Specific examples of sites where Thurber needlegrass is prevalent follow:

Location Elevation Annual Precip. Reference
Southern ID 4400-4600 ft (1341-1402 m) 10 in (250 mm) [42]
Northern NV 5000-7300 ft (1524-2225 m) 11 in (280 mm) [29]
Central OR 2400 ft (732 m) 9.3 in (236 mm) [23]
Eastern OR 4300 ft (1311 m) 11.5 in (290 mm) [37]
Southeastern OR 4600-5200 ft (1402-1585 m) 11.5 in (290 mm) [45]
South-central WA 1200 ft (366 m) 10 in (250 mm) [52,56]
 

SUCCESSIONAL STATUS:

Thurber needlegrass is a climax species in many sagebrush/grassland, pinyon-juniper, and western juniper plant associations [41]. Burning and other disturbances often favor annual species such as cheatgrass over perennial grasses such as Thurber needlegrass, so Thurber needlegrass is most common in mid-successional seres [48,73,90]. The increase of perennial species such as Thurber needlegrass may either be correlated to the attainment of the critical biomass necessary for seed production or to the increase in ground cover that provides a favorable microsite for seed germination and plant survival [48]. A study of secondary succession in north-central Nevada found Wyoming big sagebrush was a principal increaser species in the overstory while Thurber needlegrass was a principal understory decreaser in late succession [27].

SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT:

Thurber needlegrass begins annual growth in early spring [67,81], fruits from May to June [67,70], produces ripe seed mid to late July [67,81], and continues growth until October [70]. A study in southern Idaho found Thurber needlegrass grew rapidly in the spring, then become largely dormant in summer. After autumn rains, this grass regrew for a longer period of time than most associated grasses [79,84].

The following data indicate the seasonal development of Thurber needlegrass near Silver Lake, Oregon [40]:

Mid-May Early June Late June Early July Mid-July Mid-August
early boot in head early milk late milk late dough mature seed

FIRE ECOLOGY

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
FIRE ECOLOGY OR ADAPTATIONS:

Thurber needlegrass is classified as "moderately" resistant [76], but depending on the season of burn, phenology, and fire severity, this perennial bunchgrass is moderately to severely damaged by fire [10,31,62,87,97]. Aboveground vegetation of needlegrass is often consumed by fire [97]. The distribution of fuels within the plant influences the severity and length of burn time. Fire in the many leafy vegetative culms can promote burning beneath the soil surface, producing subsurface charring [97]. The abundant dead material which is sometimes present with Thurber needlegrass contributes to fire damage regardless of season [97]. Postburn regeneration usually occurs by seed [41]. Thurber needlegrass has also adapted to fire by regenerating by fire-enhanced flowering [87].

Fire regimes for plant communities in which Thurber needlegrass occurs are summarized below. Historic fire severities ranged from nonlethal understory fire in ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) to stand-replacing fire in chaparral and sagebrush communities. For further information regarding fire regimes and fire ecology of communities where Thurber needlegrass is found, see the Fire Ecology and Adaptations section of the FEIS species summary for the plant community or ecosystem dominants.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range in Years (mean)
Pacific ponderosa pine* Pinus ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47
interior ponderosa pine* P. ponderosa var. scopulorum 2-10
Colorado pinyon P. edulis 10-49
Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca 25-100 [11]
coastal Douglas-fir* Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii 95-242 [61,66]
California chaparral Adenostoma and/or Arctostaphylos spp. 20-40
California montane chaparral Ceanothus and/or Arctostaphylos spp. 50-100 [11]
basin big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata 12-43 [69]
Wyoming big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata var. wyomensis 10-70 (40) [89,103]
curlleaf mountain-mahogany* Cercocarpus ledifolius 13-1,350 [3,72]
mountain grasslands Pseudoroegneria spicata 3-40 (10) [2]
*fire return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the species summary
 

POSTFIRE REGENERATION STRATEGY [80]:

Tussock graminoid
Secondary colonizer - off-site seed


FIRE EFFECTS

SPECIES: Achnatherum thurberianum
IMMEDIATE FIRE EFFECT ON PLANT:

Wright and others [98] concluded that Thurber needlegrass is probably the least fire-resistant needlegrass, largely due to its densely tufted stems [90,106]. Aboveground vegetation is often consumed by fire [97], and burning has been found to decrease this needlegrass' vegetative and reproductive vigor [86]. The seasonal response to burning is important in determining the extent of damage by fire [100]; early-season burning is more damaging than late-season burning [10,35,86,87,90]. The smaller the basal diameter, the less the plants are damaged by fire [90,97,100,106]. The root crowns of this species often show sub-surface charring [79], but Thurber needlegrass often survives wildfire and continues growth when conditions are "favorable" [48].

DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF FIRE EFFECT:

Thurber needlegrass vegetation and reproduction are decreased with burning [10,14,86,87]. On the Arid Lands Ecology Reserve in south-central Washington, 3 years of burn monitoring showed that the average length of the leaves, culms, and spikes of Thurber needlegrass were shortened each year the area was burned, and the basal area and phytomass production were reduced [86,87]. Basal area has also been reduced by fire in Oregon [10] and California [14]. Stanton [79] found flowerstalk production was much reduced the year following a burn; however, the number of inflorescences may increase after fire disturbance [97]. Tagged Thurber needlegrass showed 21% mortality in a BLM prescribed burn; of those surviving, 91% produced seedheads [16].

Fire-caused mortality of Thurber needlegrass varies by both plant size and season [100]. A study in Idaho found the plants suffered high mortality from June fires, were extremely susceptible to damage from burning in July, but were relatively resistant to fire in August [97]. An eastern Oregon study determined that mortality for this species was 50% in May, 70% in June, and 10% in November. The season of burn is important in determining the extent of damage to Thurber needlegrass, but bunch size determines the amount of fire damage to individual bunches [100]. Presumably, when fuel volume is small, less heat is released immediately above the perennating buds [19]; therefore, smaller bunches are less likely to be damaged by fire [97,100]. In a wildfire with higher surface temperatures than in a controlled study, large Thurber needlegrass plants showed greater mortality and basal area reduction than experimentally burned plants [14]; however, soil heated from 482 to 1382 degrees Fahrenheit (250-750 oC) increased the emergence of Thurber needlegrass seedlings [9].

 

PLANT RESPONSE TO FIRE:

If not killed outright by fire, Thurber needlegrass generally recovers slowly [90]. Living tissue often survives only at the periphery of the crown [97]. Thurber needlegrass plants that survive fire may have reduced vigor for many years [12]. Although recovery time is variable, preburn herbage levels have been nearly reached after 3 years of regrowth on some sites [87]. Competitive perennial and annual grasses often inhibit the postburn re-establishment of Thurber needlegrass [14,32,102,105].

DISCUSSION AND QUALIFICATION OF PLANT RESPONSE:

Evidence suggests that the short-term productivity of Thurber needlegrass is decreased following fire [87]. However, on limited sites where Thurber needlegrass was only "mildly damaged" by fire, herbage production exceeded that of unburned plots within 3 years of burning [87]; this result was uncommon as regrowth is usually slow [12,87].

Regeneration of Thurber needlegrass is often dependent on competition from other species. Cheatgrass is a highly successful competitor with seedlings of Thurber needlegrass [32]. Basal cover of bluebunch wheatgrass and Sandberg's bluegrass equaled or exceeded prefire levels at Lava Beds National Monument in California, at the expense of Thurber needlegrass and Idaho fescue [14].

 

FIRE MANAGEMENT CONSIDERATIONS:

Wildfires in the big sagebrush/grasslands of the Great Basin can be extremely detrimental or beneficial, depending on management goals and rehabilitation efforts. Destruction of degraded big sagebrush communities by wildfires presents an opportunity for improvement in the range condition by seeding with perennial grasses and browse species. However, this opportunity can be quickly lost because the weed control effects of a wildfire are temporary. Failure to rehabilitate burned areas quickly may risk further environmental degradation [32]. The success of techniques for revegetation of degraded big sagebrush communities burned in wildfires often depends on the level of competition from cheatgrass [105]. Evidence also suggests that when Thurber needlegrass is burned and then grazed, recovery can be impaired [60].

Data suggest that prescribed fires contribute to a substantial decrease in mature bunches of Thurber needlegrass; however, due to Thurber needlegrass' stable frequency levels and postfire seedling establishment, negative long-term effects are negligible [13]. It is recommended that prescribed burning take place during the fall to minimize damage to dominant cool-season plants such as Thurber needlegrass [96].


Achnatherum thurberianum: References


1. Acker, Steven A. 1992. Wildfire and soil organic carbon in sagebrush-bunchgrass vegetation. The Great Basin Naturalist. 52(3): 284-287. [20093]

2. Arno, Stephen F. 1980. Forest fire history in the northern Rockies. Journal of Forestry. 78(8): 460-465. [11990]

3. Arno, Stephen F.; Wilson, Andrew E. 1986. Dating past fires in curlleaf mountain-mahogany communities. Journal of Range Management. 39(3): 241-243. [350]

4. Barnett, Jenny K.; Crawford, John A. 1994. Pre-laying nutrition of sage grouse hens in Oregon. Journal of Range Management. 47: 114-118. [31099]

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