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Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
Contact Information
  • Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems
  • 333 Broadway SE. Suite 115
  • Albuquerque, NM 87102-3497
  • 505-724-3660
  • 505-724-3688 (fax)
You are here: Grassland, Shrubland and Desert Ecosystems / Research by Project / Sagebrush Post-Fire Recovery

Mountain Big Sagebrush Post-Fire Recovery

Project Title

Mountain Big Sagebrush Post-Fire Recovery (Succession) in the Southern Half of its Distribution


Knowledge of past fire regimes associated with mountain big sagebrush-dominated landscapes is inadequate for accurate assessment of current departures from historical conditions and scientifically-based fire planning by land managers. Widely utilized estimates of fire frequency are based upon a few problematic studies using fire-scarred proxy trees located at the forest/shrubland ecotone. These studies, all conducted in the northern half of the species distribution, generally fail to adequately address questions of fire behavior across the fuels threshold at the forest/shrubland ecotone. Alternatively, fire frequencies compatible with big sagebrush have been suggested based upon post-fire succession rates. Specifically, minimum and maximum fire free intervals are estimated based upon the time required for big sagebrush recovery or tree invasion and dominance, respectively. Published studies of mountain big sagebrush post-fire recovery are also limited primarily to higher latitudes, and as a rule are not linked to tree invasion studies. Big sagebrush does not sprout after fire and recovery is dependent upon the availability of seed and post-burn survival of seedlings. Factors that affect seed production, seed bank retention, and post-fire seed survival are not adequately understood. Our objective is to address these deficiencies through the following steps:

  • first, using chronologies from fire-scarred trees, develop estimates of fire frequency for at least eight mountain big sagebrush communities in the eastern Great Basin, upper Colorado Plateau and intervening uplands, representing the southern half of the species distribution;
  • second, using sites from the same ecoregions with variable time-since fire, develop rate estimates for mountain big sagebrush recovery and tree invasion. As part of this effort, we are investigating the capacity for big-sagebrush seed production as a function of time-since-fire;
  • third, model the long-term response of woody species to fire regime, using as model input our proxy fire-scar estimates for fire frequency and empirically-derived estimates of successional rate and pattern. An analysis of model outputs for vegetation cover classes over time will provide a critical test of the appropriateness of shrubland fire frequency estimates based upon fire-scar records obtained from proxy trees.

GSD Principal Investigators

Kitchen, Stanley    Research Botanist    801-356-5108

Cooperators and Sponsors

Mountain big sagebrush recovery 13 years after a fire
Stan Kitchen, USDA FS
Field crew collecting data on mountain big sagebrush recovery 13 years after a fire burned the site

Zachary J Nelson, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Nevada Reno

Steven L Petersen, Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences, Brigham Young University

Peter J Weisberg, Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Nevada Reno

Joint Fire Science Program

Related Links

Historic Fire Frequency in Mountain Big Sagebrush Communities of the Eastern Great Basin and Colorado Plateau

Variation in the seed production potential
Stan Kitchen, USDA FS
Variation in the seed production potential of a sagebrush plant is related to inflorescence size and number and can be estimated for each plant using simple measurements. Here, variation in inflorescence length is apparent among samples taken at one site.