Research Project Summary: Vegetation change in grasslands and heathlands following multiple spring, summer, and fall prescription fires in Massachusetts



RESEARCH PROJECT SUMMARY CITATION:
Gucker, Corey L. 2006, compiler. Research Project Summary: Vegetation change in grasslands and heathlands following multiple spring, summer, and fall prescription fires in Massachusetts. 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/ [ ].

Source:
Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this Research Project Summary comes from the following paper:

Dunwiddie, Peter W. 1998. Ecological management of sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands in southeastern Massachusetts. In: Pruden, Teresa L.; Brennan, Leonard A., eds. Fire in ecosystem management: shifting the paradigm from suppression to prescription: Proceedings, Tall Timbers fire ecology conference; 1996 May 7-10; Boise, ID. No. 20. Tallahassee, FL: Tall Timbers Research Station: 83-93.

SPECIES INCLUDED IN THE SUMMARY:
See the Appendix.

STUDY LOCATION:
Research was conducted in Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Two heath-dominated sites, Tom Nevers and Sesachacha, were on Nantucket Island. The Wellfleet site on Cape Cod had 1 heath- and 1 grassland-dominated site. Two other grassland sites, Ram Pasture and Katama, were on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, respectively.

SITE DESCRIPTION:
These coastal study sites occurred on dry, sandy, nutrient-poor soils [1].

PREFIRE PLANT COMMUNITY:
This study occurs in the following vegetation classification:

K110 Northeastern oak-pine forest [2]

Detailed composition for the prefire plant communities of all burned sites is provided in the tables below. In general, ericaceous species contributed greater than 50% coverage in heathland vegetation and graminoid coverage was 30% to 90% in the grasslands. In the heathlands, graminoid cover was rarely more than 15%. The dominant ericaceous species included bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), and hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum). Important graminoid species included little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), yellow sedge (Carex pensylvanica), and red fescue (Festuca rubra).

PLANT PHENOLOGY
Spring and fall fires occurred when most vegetation was dormant.

FIRE SEASON/SEVERITY CLASSIFICATION:
Spring/high severity
Summer/low severity
Fall/moderate severity

FIRE DESCRIPTION:
This study was designed to determine the usefulness of fire in controlling tree encroachment in heathlands and shrub encroachment in grasslands of southeastern Massachusetts.

Spring grassland and heathland fires occurred between 5 March and 2 May with the majority burning in April. The summer grassland fires burned between 1 August and 6 August. Fall grassland and heathland fires were predominantly in October but ranged from 5 October to 19 November. All fires burned within a 13-year period from 1982 to 1994. Fires in the grasslands burned when fuel loads averaged 850 to 1,000 g/mē. Flame lengths in grassland vegetation were typically less than 2 meters. In heath-dominated vegetation, flame lengths were sometimes greater than 10 meters.

FIRE EFFECTS ON PLANT COMMUNITY:
Fire consumed aboveground portions of all vegetation and produced large declines in reindeer lichen (Cladonia (Cladina) spp.) cover, up to 70% on some plots, and frequency. Most shrub species sprouted after burning except for pinebarren goldenheather (Hudsonia ericoides) and broom crowberry (Corema conradii). Overall shrub coverage was lower after burning in most heathland and grassland sites. Shrub coverage, however, increased following spring and fall fires in the Katama grasslands. The author suggests that summer or growing season fires may be more useful in controlling shrub encroachment in grassland sites. August fires rarely burned more than 30% of the plot but still reduced shrub coverage by nearly 50%. Coverage and frequency of black huckleberry on burned areas were similar to prefire values. Whereas on unburned reference plots black huckleberry increased during the 12 years of the study. Hillside blueberry increased on most burned grassland sites but was primarily unchanged following fire in heathland vegetation. Northern bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) coverage and frequency decreased by more than half following spring and summer fires but increased after fall fires on Katama grasslands. Scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia) coverage decreased in heathland fires while dwarf chinkapin oak (Q. prinoides) coverage increased. Bristly dewberry (Rubus hispidus) decreased dramatically after summer fires.

The researcher indicated that forb species richness increased following fire, and flowering was prolific in burned areas. Forb coverage and frequency were typically lower following fire in heathlands but generally greater after fire in grasslands. Coastal plain blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium fuscatum), bushy frostweed (Helianthemum dumosum), and fewflower nutrush (Scleria pauciflora), all rare in the state of Massachusetts, increased following summer fires on the Ram Pasture site.

Graminoid species richness, according to the author, also increased with fire. Graminoid coverage decreased on a majority of the burned heathland and grassland sites, but frequency was typically greater. Yellow sedge, rosette grass (Dicahnthelium spp.), bentgrass (Agrostis spp.), little bluestem, and fescue (Festuca spp.) increased in frequency on a majority of the sites.

The following tables provide pre- and postfire coverage and frequency of heathland and grassland species. Only those species with at least 1% coverage on at least 1 site are presented in the tables. The original reference provides data on species with less cover, data on unburned reference sites, and results from combined burning and mowing treatments that are not provided in these tables [1].

Heathland coverage and frequency.pdf

Grassland coverage and frequency.pdf

FIRE MANAGEMENT IMPLICATIONS:
The author reported that treatments increased forb and graminoid richness while slowing shrub increases. Dormant-season fires, however, were not as effective as growing-season fires in decreasing shrub coverage and frequency.

The majority of species found in southeastern Massachusetts grasslands and heathlands are fire adapted. On the Tom Nevers site that burned 8 times, all but one species present in the prefire community were still present when burned sites were visited 4 years following the last fire. Revegetation was rapid on burned sites. The twice burned Sesachacha site had an equal number of species on prefire and burned sites in the 1st postfire year. Shrub coverage was lower following the fire, but graminoid and forb coverage were relatively unchanged.

While the study suggests that growing-season fires may better control shrub dominance, it is unlikely that a large-scale summer burn program in this area could be implemented. The high concentration of summer visitors to this area would likely object to summer fires because of smoke and fire control concerns.
SPECIES INCLUDED IN THE SUMMARY:
This Research Project Summary contains fire effects and/or fire response information on the following species. For further information, follow the highlighted links to the FEIS reviews for those species.

Appendix
Common name Scientific name
Shrubs
Nantucket serviceberry Amelanchier nantucketensis
bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
broom crowberry Corema conradii
wintergreen Gaultheria procumbens
black huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata
goldenheather/woolly beach-heather Hudsonia ericoides/H. tomentosa
northern bayberry Myrica pensylvanica
red chokeberry Photinia pyrifolia
bear oak Quercus ilicifolia
dwarf chinkapin oak Quercus prinoides
Virginia rose Rosa virginiana
bristly dewberry Rubus hispidus
early low-bush blueberry Vaccinium angustifolium
hillside blueberry Vaccinium pallidum
Graminoids
bentgrass Agrostis spp.
yellow sedge Carex pensylvanica
wavy hairgrass Deschampsia flexuosa
rosette grass Dichanthelium spp.
sheep fescuered fescue Festuca ovinaF. rubra
little bluestem Schizachyrium scoparium
fewflower nutrush Scleria pauciflora
Forbs
horsefly weed Baptisia tinctoria
trailing arbutus Epigaea repens
eastern showy aster Eurybia spectabilis
flat-top goldentop Euthamia graminifolia var. graminifolia
slender goldentop Euthamia caroliniana
bushy frostweed Helianthemum dumosum
flaxleaf whitetop aster Ionactis linariifolius
dwarf cinquefoil Potentilla canadensis
sheep sorrel Rumex acetosella
toothed whitetop aster Sericocarpus asteroides
narrowleaf whitetop aster Sericocarpus linifolius
coastal plain blue-eyed-grass Sisyrinchium fuscatum
rice button aster Symphyotrichum dumosum
Virginia tephrosia Tephrosia virginiana
Lichens
reindeer lichen Cladonia (Cladina) spp.

REFERENCES:


1. Dunwiddie, Peter W. 1998. Ecological management of sandplain grasslands and coastal heathlands in southeastern Massachusetts. In: Pruden, Teresa L.; Brennan, Leonard A., eds. Fire in ecosystem management: shifting the paradigm from suppression to prescription: Proceedings, Tall Timbers fire ecology conference; 1996 May 7-10; Boise, ID. No. 20. Tallahassee, FL: Tall Timbers Research Station: 83-93. [35607]
2. Kuchler, A. W. 1964. United States [Potential natural vegetation of the conterminous United States]. Special Publication No. 36. New York: American Geographical Society. 1:3,168,000; colored. [3455]

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