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Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii

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Tirmenstein, D. 2000. Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: /database/feis/plants/graminoid/fesspp/all.html [ ].

Updates: On 30 January 2018, the common name of Festuca altaica was changed in FEIS from: northern rough fescue to: Altai fescue. Distrbutional maps were also added.



Altai fescue
alpine rough fescue
northern rough fescue

mountain rough fescue

plains rough fescue

The rough fescues are in the grass family (Poaceae). They form a closely related complex of species that are separated by rhizome morphology and ploidy level [14]. There are 3 species in the rough fescue complex:

Festuca altaica Trin., Altai fescue [14,60]
Festuca campestris Rydb., mountain rough fescue [1,2,14,60,80]
Festuca hallii (Vasey) Piper, plains rough fescue [14,60]

Altai and plains rough fescue are tetraploids, whereas mountain rough fescue is octaploid [2,3]. In this summary, "rough fescue" refers to the complex. Species are referred to by the full common names listed above.

for Festuca altaica:
   Festuca altaica subsp. altaica (Vasey) Harms
   Festuca altaica subsp. scabrella (Vasey) Harms
   Festuca altaica var. scabrella (Torr.) Breitung [46]
   Festuca scabrella Torr. [41,47]

for Festuca hallii:
   Festuca altaica subsp. hallii (Vasey) Harms [46]

for Festuca campestris:
   Festuca altaica var. major (Vasey) Gleason [1]
   Festuca scabrella var. major Vasey [108]


No special status

Information on state- and province-level protection status of plant species in the United States and Canada is available at NatureServe.


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Rough fescue is a circumboreal complex [7,11]. In North America, plants in the complex are widely distributed from Alaska southward to Oregon and Colorado [27,47,49]. Rough fescue is a major prairie type of the northern Great Plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota. It has a scattered distribution in the East, where it is most common in Michigan and the northeastern provinces [11,41,95,104].

Distributions of the species in the rough fescue complex are:

Altai fescue - from Alaska and the Northwest Territories south to British Columbia [4,7]; scattered occurrences in the Great Lakes states and the eastern provinces [1,4,11,13,15]

mountain rough fescue - from British Columbia east to Alberta and south to Montana and Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado [4,13]

plains rough fescue - from eastern British Columbia east to Manitoba and south to Colorado and North Dakota [4,10,13]

Distributions of Altai fescue, mountain rough fescue, and plains rough fescue, respectively. Maps courtesy of USDA, NRCS. 2018. The PLANTS Database. National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC [105] [2018, January 30].

FRES10 White-red-jack pine
FRES11 Spruce-fir
FRES15 Oak-hickory
FRES19 Aspen-birch
FRES20 Douglas-fir
FRES21 Ponderosa pine
FRES23 Fir-spruce
FRES25 Larch
FRES26 Lodgepole pine
FRES29 Sagebrush
FRES36 Mountain grasslands
FRES38 Plains grasslands


5 Columbia Plateau
8 Northern Rocky Mountains
9 Middle Rocky Mountains
10 Wyoming Basin
11 Southern Rocky Mountains
16 Upper Missouri Basin and Broken Lands

K008 Lodgepole pine-subalpine forest
K011 Western ponderosa forest
K012 Douglas-fir forest
K014 Grand fir-Douglas-fir forest
K016 Eastern ponderosa forest
K018 Pine-Douglas-fir forest
K038 Great Basin sagebrush
K055 Sagebrush steppe
K063 Foothills prairie
K064 Grama-needlegrass-wheatgrass
K066 Wheatgrass-needlegrass
K067 Wheatgrass-bluestem-needlegrass
K081 Oak savanna

12 Black spruce
13 Black spruce-tamarack
16 Aspen
107 White spruce
201 White spruce
202 White spruce-paper birch
204 Black spruce
210 Interior Douglas-fir
212 Western larch
213 Grand fir
217 Aspen
218 Lodgepole pine
219 Limber pine
237 Interior ponderosa pine
251 White spruce-aspen
253 Black spruce-white spruce
254 Black spruce-paper birch

102 Idaho fescue
110 Ponderosa pine-grassland
305 Idaho fescue-Richardson needlegrass
309 Idaho fescue-western wheatgrass
311 Rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass
312 Rough fescue-Idaho fescue
316 Big sagebrush-rough fescue
323 Shrubby cinquefoil-rough fescue
319 Bitterbrush-rough fescue
410 Alpine rangeland
411 Aspen woodland
613 Fescue grassland
904 Black spruce-lichen
905 Bluejoint reedgrass
907 Dryas
908 Fescue
914 Mesic sedge-grass-herb meadow tundra
920 White spruce-paper birch

Rough fescue is a dominant understory plant in a number of nonforested and forested communities throughout its range. On grassland sites it often occurs as the climax dominant and has been used as a series indicator. Commonly described grassland types include rough fescue-Idaho fescue (F. altaica-F. idahoensis) and rough fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata). Shrubland series where rough fescue is named as an understory indicator include big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), and shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora floribunda). Habitat types where rough fescue dominates the understory have been identified within limber pine (Pinus flexilis), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) series [7,83,88].

Common associates of rough fescue in prairie communities include timber oatgrass (Danthonia intermedia), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), bluegrass (Poa spp.), lupine (Lupinus spp.), and shrubby cinquefoil [20]. Plains rough fescue commonly occurs with blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) [69]. On the steppes of Washington, rough fescue is often associated with Idaho fescue/sulphur flower (Eriogonum heracleoides) and Idaho fescue/common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) habitat types [28]. In central Alberta and Manitoba, rough fescue commonly grows in association with porcupine grass (Stipa spartea var. curtiseta), western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), prairie Junegrass, timber oatgrass, and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) [6,12].

Altai fescue grows in tundra meadows in Alaska with downy ryegrass (Elymus innovatus) and bluegrass (Poa spp.) [106]. In Alaskan taiga communities, Altai fescue grows on windy foothill sites with bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis) [107]. It also grows in boreal lodgepole pine forests [80].

Mountain rough fescue is a dominant component of several grassland associations of southern Alberta and British Columbia [1]. It also occurs in open ponderosa pine forests, in forests within the subalpine zone, and in grassy balds within forested areas [80].

Plains rough fescue originally occupied quaking aspen parklands and benches along the Rocky Mountain foothills [42,102]. It also grew in parts of the northern Great Plains [46]. Grazing and agriculture have largely eliminated plains rough fescue from many of the highly productive, low- elevation sites it once occupied [6,95]. Griltz and Romo [43] estimate that less than 5% of prairie once dominated by this subspecies remains, primarily as small, isolated remnants. Plains rough fescue overlaps with mountain rough fescue in parts of the Rocky Mountains [80].

Plant classifications describing communities dominated by rough fescue are as follows:

Forest regions of Montana [7]
Forest habitat types of Montana [83]
Soil and vegetation inventory of near-pristine sites in Montana [88]
The fescue grasslands of western Canada [68]
The fescue grasslands of Alberta [78]
Grassland and shrubland habitats of western Montana [79]
The grasslands of the Southern Interior of British Columbia [101]


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Rough fescue plants are erect, native, cool-season, perennial bunchgrasses that produces thick mats of persistent sheath and stem bases [27]. Culms range from 2 to 3.5 feet (6-10 dm) in height, although plant heights to 5 feet (1.5 m) have been recorded. Leaves are mostly basal with tuft heights generally ranging from 12 to 16 inches (30-40 cm). Rough fescue derives its name from the rough feel of the leaf blade, rachis, and lemma [95].

Individual rough fescue plants often form large-diameter bunches. Moss and Campbell [78] reported crown diameters of 10 to 20 inches (25-50 cm) on undisturbed sites in Alberta. In quaking aspen parklands of Saskatchewan, plant diameters rarely exceed 5 to 6 inches (13-15 cm). Plants have an extensive fibrous root system that can reach more than 4 feet (120 cm) in depth on sites in the black soil zone in Saskatchewan. Approximately 73% of the root system is concentrated in the top 6 inches (15 cm) of soil. On these sites, average yield of underground fescue parts to a depth of 4 feet (1.2 m) is estimated at approximately 11.11 tons/acre [25].

Culm height, color, and other characteristics differ by species [80]. Rough fescue species are distinguished primarily by growth habit and other morphological characteristics, and there is overlap among the subspecies. Botanical characteristics of the species follow.

Altai fescue tends to have yellowish- to dark-green foliage. Plants are densely caespitose with short, inconspicuous to infrequently present rhizomes [1,80]. Plants produce 5 to 10 culms that are 16 to 24 inches (40-60 cm) in height, and have 3 to 5 florets per spikelet [14,46,80]. 

Mountain rough fescue is bluish gray-green, densely caespitose, and occasionally has short rhizomes [14,46,80]. It is relatively tall and forms large clumps consisting of up to 25 culms [80]. Culms generally range from 16 to 36 inches (40-90 cm) in height, with 4 to 6 florets per spikelet [1]. Mountain rough fescue has double the chromosome number of the other 2 subspecies [80].

Plains rough fescue is somewhat rhizomatous and mat forming in habit. Plants are bluish or gray-green bunchgrasses with short rhizomes. Plants produce 3 to 5 culms that range from 8 to 26 inches (20-65 cm) in height. There are 2 to 3 florets per spikelet. Plants are relatively short, less strongly tufted than the other subspecies and produce short, creeping rhizomes [1,14,62]. Dead sheaths persist at the base of plants [1].


Rough fescue regenerates from seed, tillers, and sometimes from rhizomes. Plants may be rhizomatous or caespitose in habit [80,97].

As is the case with the majority of cool-season grasses, the seed crop of any year is initiated and partially develops during the fall. Final seedhead maturation occurs the next summer. Vegetative buds are maintained throughout the year at approximately 0.09 inch (2.3 mm) above the root-stem transition. Floral initiation occurs primarily during late August and early September. Reproductive apices are gradually elevated to 0.6 inch (15.2 mm) during the winter months. Rapid culm elongation occurs during May and early June [97].

Variation in year-to-year germination and seed production has been reported. Seed production is not related to basal area or the number of tillers per plant. Although factors responsible for erratic seed production in rough fescue are unknown, Stout and others [97] suggest that environmental factors can have a significant impact when seed development occurs over a prolonged period. Their studies indicate that low temperatures enhance seed development.

Griltz and others [44] report that "persistence of viable rough fescue seed in the soil is low." In Alberta, the number of viable seed per m2 of rough fescue decreased with grazing [56]. According to Griltz and others [44] germination in rough fescue is primarily controlled by water stress and not temperature. For example, plains rough fescue is known to germinate over a wide range of temperature. Germination was found to be highest at constant temperatures of 59 and 68 oF (15 and 20 oC) [87]. Germination of rough fescue is reduced by exposure to moist conditions at low temperatures [44]. Johnston and MacDonald [55] reported germination rates of 86 to 96.5% during field trials in southern Alberta. Details on germination characteristics of rough fescue by temperature, light, and osmotic potential are available [44,87,92,93].

Stands typically take from 3 to 4 years to fully develop. Initial establishment is enhanced on sites that receive protection from grazing. The establishment of plains rough fescue is likely to be highest where plants have died or where competition is reduced at some distance from established plants [44].

Plains rough fescue, which grows along the foothills and in mountain grasslands of the Rocky Mountains, is rhizomatous. In Alberta, bunches are connected by short rhizomes to form a large, loosely consolidated crown. Rhizomes emerge either laterally or from underneath the crown and radiate in all directions. Sprouts are then produced within approximately 0.8 inch (2 cm) of the parent plant. Maximum root depth is 6 inches (15 cm). Maximum rhizome lengths are approximately 23 inches (60 cm). Vegetative regeneration in plains rough fescue may be reduced by heavy grazing. Plains rough fescue produces seed only infrequently [87].

Altai fescue may have short, inconspicuous rhizomes [1,14]. 

Mountain rough fescue rarely produces rhizomes [14,46,80]. Mountain rough fescue tillers appear to survive "several" years and become larger with age [39]. Most tillers are vegetative and lack culms [111]. Seed production is erratic. Several years may elapse without any appreciable seed set. Important seed years in southern Alberta were 1902, 1952, 1964, and 1966 [55].

Rough fescue grows in grasslands, open forests, montane and subalpine grasslands, and in alpine, tundra, and arctic communities [80]. It is most prominent in a belt along the northern edge of the Great Plains, where it is the principal climax dominant within the black-soil zone of Alberta, western Saskatchewan, and northwestern Montana [26]. It is generally associated with mesic grassland sites having annual precipitation of more than 14 inches (350 mm) and a short, cool growing season [95,110]. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, rough fescue grasslands are characterized by a subhumid climate and annual precipitation of approximately 22 inches (560 mm), of which 65% occurs between May and September [117].

Rough fescue grows on a number of soil types including loam and silty loams [64]. In eastern North America, Altai fescue populations are often localized. Populations are found on sand plains, serpentine barrens, limestone plains and basaltic slopes. In western North American, Altai fescue grows in subalpine, alpine, taiga, and tundra zones in open forests, meadows, and grasslands, or in timber, rocky slopes, and plateaus [1].

Site preferences of rough fescue vary by subspecies. Mountain rough fescue is a dominant component of foothill grasslands. This subspecies occurs on more mesic and cooler sites than the other subspecies [1]. 

Topography supporting plains rough fescue ranges from level to gently rolling. Plains and mountain rough fescue are separated by elevation in southern Alberta. Plains rough fescue occupies prairie sites in central Alberta and Saskatchewan at elevations from 1,200 to 2,000 feet (366-610 m) [1].

Elevational ranges of rough fescue vary as follows [25,30,32,49,68,71,103,118]:

2,000 to 7,500 ft (600-2,300 m) in Alberta
2,000 to 3,800 ft (600-1,200 m) in British Columbia
7,900 to 12,000 ft (2,400-3,700 m) in Colorado
1,200 to 2,400 ft (400-700 m) in Manitoba
2,100 to 7,400 ft (600-2,300 m) in Montana
8,000 to 9,500 ft (2,400-2,900 m) in Oregon
1,900 to 4,200 ft (600-1,000 m) in Saskatchewan
2,000 to 6,000 ft (600-1,900 m) in Washington
7,250 to 8,600 ft (2,200-2,600 m) in Wyoming

Rough fescue occurs in early, seral, and climax communities. It is characteristic of many climax and late-successional mountain grassland and fescue prairie communities [70,78]. In rough fescue prairie foothill communities of Alberta, succession to a "near climax state" requires more than 20 years following heavy grazing [33]. Complete recovery following light grazing in southwestern Alberta took approximately 14 years [113]. Rough fescue is a component of early seral communities following fire because of residual plant survival [70,78].

Altai fescue is common soon after fire in quaking aspen woodlands of Alaska [69]. It is also prevalent on some black spruce (Picea mariana) sites 40 to 100 years after fire in British Columbia [82]. It occurs in early stages of succession in tundra communities of the Alaska Range [106]. It is present into the early shrub stage, but does not reproduce sexually. By the late shrub stage, rough fescue is no longer present. Generalized succession in these tundra communities is as follows [106]:

pioneer stage: 25-30 years
meadow stage: 100 years
early shrub stage: 150-200 years
late shrub stage: 200-300 years
climax tundra: 5,000-9,000 years

Plains rough fescue is considered a climax species in grassland communities of Manitoba [6].

Rough fescue is a cool-season grass that is well adapted to a short growing season. It typically initiates growth immediately following snowmelt and completes growth before the onset of summer drought. On most sites, plants cure by early October [55]. Reserve carbohydrate levels are at low levels in April or May [58], when growth resumes. On montane grassland sites in interior British Columbia, rough fescue initiates growth in early spring (usually by mid-April) and ceases growth by late June [97,98]. In British Columbia, culm growth begins in late May and ceases by the time leaf growth has ended [98]. Soil temperatures at depths of 4 inches (10 cm) ranged from 36.7 to 37.2 o Fahrenheit (2.6-2.9 oC). Growth initiation may be more closely related to soil temperature than to soil water content or to air temperature. In Alberta, Johnston and McDonald [55] observed that growth began in mid-May when soil temperatures were 35.6 o Fahrenheit (2 o C) at 8 inches (20 cm).

In British Columbia, flowering typically occurs from mid-May to mid-June, with seed dispersal from mid- to late July. Maximum plant weights were not attained until late June, after culm and blade elongation had ceased. Summer growth cessation is controlled primarily by available water [98]. Fall regrowth occasionally occurs in plains rough fescue in Manitoba [102]. In British Columbia, fall regrowth occurred in 2 out of 3 years in September or October. Lack of regrowth was attributed to effects of defoliation [98].

Dates of phenological development of rough fescue over a 3-year period on 2 sites in interior British Columbia [98].
3,798 Feet (1,158 m)
2,800 Feet (854 m)
Phenological stage
Boot 5/27 ---- 5/1 5/12 5/10 4/30
Early head 6/3 5/18 5/8 5/19 5/17 5/7
Full head 6/10 5/25 5/30 5/22 5/24 5/14
Early flower 6/17 6/1 5/30 6/2 5/31 5/28
Full flower 6/24 6/15 6/6 6/9 6/7 6/5
End of flower 7/1 6/22 6/13 6/23 6/14 6/12
Seed in milk ---- ---- 6/29 6/30 ---- 6/19
Seed in dough ---- 7/11 ---- 7/7 7/5 6/26
Seed ripe 7/22 ---- 7/5 7/14 ---- 7/3
Seed shatter ---- 7/24 7/5 ---- 7/17 7/3
Leaf growth stops            
  estimated visually 6/17 7/7 6/13 6/23 6/28 5/28
  estimated from measurements 6/10 6/29 5/30 6/2 6/7 5/28
Fall regrowth begins            
  estimated visually 9/3 none 10/16 9/15 none 10/3
  estimated from measurements 9/9 none none 9/22 none 10/17

In Manitoba, plains rough fescue begins growth from mid-April to early May. Plants reach full seedhead development from late May through mid-June, depending on environmental conditions [102]. Although plains rough fescue flowers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than mountain rough fescue, the seed matures at a later date. Mass flowering of plains rough fescue has been reported at irregular intervals. Mass flowering may be due to a combination of warm spring temperatures, few killing frosts, and early heat penetration of the soil [1].


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Fire adaptations: Rough fescue plants appear to be well adapted to periodic burning. Their dense, tufted habit makes them resistant to "light" fire [1]. The primary postfire survival strategy of rough fescue is through the sprouting of surviving residual plants and from off-site wind-dispersed seed [100]. Although plants are initially top-killed, recovery of prefire coverages and herbage production is usually attained in 2 to 3 years [99]. 

Susceptibility to fire is related to fire severity, frequency, and season [100]. Crowns are characterized by coarse stems that tend to persist from year to year. During burning, densely packed stubble accumulations insulate perennating buds located near the ground surface [55,75]. Reductions in plant vigor are more long lasting following growing-season burns than dormant-season burns. Postburn recovery rates decline the further into the growing season plants are burned [12,91]. Where reduced fire frequencies have produced large-diameter bunches with heavy litter build-ups, survival may be severely inhibited, as crowns tend to continue burning long after passage of the flame front [6,119]. Antos and others [6] suggest that fire frequencies in the range of 5 to 10 years may best maintain rough fescue.

Fire regimes: In parts of Saskatchewan, presettlement fire intervals in plains rough fescue communities were estimated at 2-6 or 5-10 years [85]. Barrett [15] estimates presettlement fire free intervals of 10 to 18 years in ponderosa pine rough fescue communities in Idaho. Late summer or autumn lightning fires may have encouraged the growth of rough fescue in Oregon [4]. Grazed areas generally hamper fire spread, and intense use by livestock may have greatly restricted fire spread in rough fescue grasslands [10].

Find fire regime information for the plant communities in which these species may occur by entering the species' names in the FEIS home page under "Find Fire Regimes". The following table provides fire-return intervals for some plant communities in which rough fescue is common.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range (years)
plains grasslands Bouteloua spp. < 35
blue grama-needle-and-thread grass-western wheatgrass B. gracilis-Hesperostipa comata-Pascopyrum smithii < 35 
wheatgrass plains grasslands Pascopyrum smithii < 35 [81]
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to > 200 [35]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* Pinus contorta var. latifolia 25-300+ [8,9,86]
Pacific ponderosa pine* P. ponderosa var. ponderosa 1-47 
interior ponderosa pine* P. p. var. scopulorum 2-10 [9]
quaking aspen (west of the Great Plains) Populus tremuloides 7-120 [9,45,74]
aspen-birch P. t.-Betula papyrifera 35-200 [35,109]
*Fire-return interval varies widely; trends in variation are noted in the Species Review.

Rhizomatous herb, rhizome in soil
Tussock graminoid
Caudex/herbaceous root crown, growing points in soil
Initial on-site colonizer (on-site, initial community)



SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Rough fescue plants are initially top-killed by fire [100]; however, they are moderately resistant to fire. Rough fescue crowns are made up of coarse culm bases that persist from year to year. These crown characteristics make rough fescue less susceptible to prolonged burning than a fine-leaved bunchgrass such as Idaho fescue [119]. Coarse stubble accumulations presumably insulate perennating buds located near the ground surface [75]. Most plants survive fires that occur during dormancy or under the high-moisture conditions often associated with spring and fall burning [12,59,67].

Although densely packed stubble accumulations help to insulate the perennating buds when fire severity is low, with very dry burning conditions the dense stubble accumulations can generate high-severity fires [100]. Fires that penetrate the duff layer and burn into the root crowns increase belowground temperatures that can damage belowground tissues [19,100]. Fire damage can be particularly severe and mortality can occur  on sites where reduced fire frequencies have produced heavy litter buildups within large-diameter rough fescue crowns [6].

Rough fescue can be severely damaged by hot, mid-summer wildfires. Rough fescue cover was significantly reduced by spring burning on rough fescue-dominated foothills grassland in western Montana. At postfire year 1, rough fescue cover was 8.1% on burned areas and 24.6% on unburned areas. The site had been protected from fire for 32 years and had been ungrazed for almost 80 years. Rough fescue plants were characterized by large-diameter bunches with substantial accumulations of old culm stubble. Mortality occurred where crown diameters exceeded 7.8 inches (20 cm), and many of these plants had burned to below the soil surface. Complete consumption of some bunches produced holes in the ground from 1 to 2 inches (3-5 cm) in depth that were filled with as much as 1 inch (3 cm) of ash [6].

Rough fescue recovers from fire by tillering, sprouting from the root crown, and regenerating from seed [1,42,91,99,100]. It is initially reduced by fire regardless of the season of burning. Although prefire cover is typically regained within 2 to 3 years on most sites [100], burning season and fire severity can influence the rate of recovery. Despite burning at high temperatures, rough fescue can sometimes initiate conspicuous green shoots within a week after the fire. Rough fescue is unharmed by burning if the plant is dormant [4].

Spring burns can adversely affect flower development, and seed production can be reduced. Spring burns may be more detrimental due to elevated growing points that increase susceptibility; however, in a southeastern British Columbia study, spring burns had no significant effect on rough fescue cover [100].

Fall burns appear to have no effect on seed production [12,100]. Elevated soil moistures which are associated with fall burns may also reduce damage. Early spring growth and flower development were reported following the fall burn in British Columbia. Earlier growth was attributed to increased soil temperatures resulting from greater heat absorption from the blackened surface [100].

Nonrhizomatous Altai and mountain rough fescue appear more susceptible to fire damage than plains rough fescue. Plants are particularly prone to fire damage on sites where reduced fire frequencies have produced large diameter bunches with heavy stubble accumulations. Antos and others [6] observed decreased sprouting response with increasing bunch size following a hot, mid-season wildfire in Montana. Crowns less than 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter sprouted completely, whereas sprouting was inhibited in crowns greater than 7.8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Three years after the fire, average coverage of rough fescue on burned sites was 11.1% versus 29.9% in unburned areas. Herbage production can remain below unburned levels for 2 to 3 years when mid-season burning generates high severity fires [21].

Rough fescue cover can be severely reduced when burning occurs during the growing season. On quaking aspen parkland of southern Alberta, Bailey and Anderson [12] reported a 26% decline 1 year after a spring burn compared to a 6% decline after a fall burn. Rough fescue cover was reduced for at least 3 years: herbage production on  burned sites remained below production on unburned areas. New rough fescue growth on burned sites was approximately 4 inches (10 cm) in height at postfire year 3. In contrast, burning on similar sites immediately after snowmelt, when leaf growth was approximately 1.5 inches (4 cm), slightly reduced rough fescue cover but maintained prefire annual production during postfire year 1.

Generally, plains rough fescue responds to fire by increased tiller production. Burned swards are shorter and denser than unburned swards. Apparently the further into the growing season the burning occurs, the greater the detrimental effect. Grilz and Romo [42] reported reduced tillering of plains rough fescue following spring or fall burns in communities with patchy smooth brome. Sinton [91] observed a nearly linear relationship between herbage production, leaf blade length, and tiller density following burning 1 week, 4 weeks, and 8 weeks after snowmelt.

Drastic reductions in seed production can occur after spring burns. Bailey and Anderson [12] reported a 92% reduction in seedstalk production 3 months after a spring burn in southern Alberta. Following a spring burn in Saskatchewan, biomass in grasslands dominated by plains rough fescue was reduced by 72 to 84% [85]. Like many cool-season grasses, rough fescue initiates floral development in the fall. Studies of rough fescue indicate that growing points are gradually elevated during the winter from 0.4 inches (12.6 mm) above the root crown transition in October to 1.5 inches (40 cm) in May [55]. Bailey and Anderson [12] suggest that floral initiation is not affected by spring burns; but by May, the greater height of reproductive growing points leaves them them  susceptible to fire damage. Seed development on burn sites approximated that on unburned stands within 2 growing seasons. Fall burns had no effect on subsequent seed head development.

In Montana, rough fescue decreased 17.5% in the 1st season after fire. During the 2nd growing season after fire, a 5% reduction was noted when compared to prefire levels [22]. The following densities (stems/m2) were reported for rough fescue following spring and fall burning in Saskatchewan [42]:

                    spring burn    fall burn    unburned
	    (1988)           (1987)
Aug. 87	    1065              1860         1190
Sept. 88       1425              1180         1170
Aug. 89        1275              1905         1110

For further information on rough fescue response to fire, see Fire Case Studies. The following Research Project Summaries provide information on prescribed fire use and postfire response of plant community species, including rough fescue, that was not available when this species review was originally written:

Annual spring burning studies on quaking aspen parkland sites in Alberta indicate that short fire cycles impede rough fescue reestablishment , while long fire return intervals produce high mortality due to excessive fuel buildup. In plains rough fescue prairie communities, large concentrations of dead plant material develop in the absence of fire and/or grazing [44]. Prescribed fire frequencies of 5 to 10 years are recommended for mountain grassland sites where management objectives are aimed at rough fescue maintenance [5].

Spring burns should be conducted as soon after snowmelt as possible to minimize fire damage [12]. The degree to which plants recover typically declines as the growing season progresses [5,91]. In northwestern Montana, fall burns can increase the chances of soil erosion by wind or water, leaving rough fescue more susceptible to frost damage. Fall burns may also reduce important elk forage, including rough fescue, during the 1st winter after burning [58].

Protein content (%) of rough fescue may be increased by burning. In central Montana, protein content ranged from 6.0 to 8.9% on unburned control sites, and from 8.1 to 14.6% on burned sites [61].


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Tirmenstein, D., compiler. 2000. Alberta plains rough fescue prescribed fire study. In: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: /database/feis/ [ ].

Gerling, Heather Sinton; Bailey, Arthur W.; Willms, Walter D. 1995. The effects of burning on Festuca hallii in the parklands of central Alberta. Canadian Journal of Botany. 73(6): 937-942. [39].

spring, summer, fall/not reported

The study took place on the University of Alberta's ranch at Kinsella, Alberta. It is located 93 miles (150 km) southeast of Edmonton, Alberta.

The prefire community was an "almost pure" stand of plains rough fescue (Festuca hallii) that had been ungrazed for 13 years. Porcupine grass (Hesperostipa curtiseta) occurred on drier sites with minor bearded wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), cerastium (Cerastium spp.), thickspike wheatgrass (E. lanceolatus), and sedges (Carex spp.) including blunt sedge (C. obtusata).

Burns were conducted on 5 separate treatment dates:

1) April 8th immediately after snowmelt (plants had not yet initiated growth)
2) April 27th (during initiation of growth)
3) June 1st (prior to anthesis)
4) July 31st (following seedset)
5) October 19th (during period of slow growth)

The study site was located on Viking moraine consisting of loam-sandy loam soil with average annual precipitation of 17 inches (422 mm).

All prescribed burns were conducted in late afternoon using a headfire. Wind speeds ranged up to 5 miles per hour (8 km/hour) with gusts to 14 miles per hour (22 km/hour). Total herbaceous fuel ranged from 9,360 to 11,540 kg/ha. Two defoliation treatments (burning and mowing) were examined on 5 dates in a factorial experiment arranged in a split-plot design with 8 replicates. Site fuel and weather conditions at times of burning were:

Burn 1) April 8th - high moisture content of fallen litter resulted in mostly standing fuel burning and only 43% consumption

Burn 2) April 27th - moisture content of litter was 29% when the fire temperatures were highest

Burn 3) June 1st - no additional information

Burn 4) July 31st - conditions were driest on July 31st, but precipitation at the time of burning increased moisture of the standing fuel

Burn 5) October 19th - greatest percentage of fuel burned on this date

  Air temperature (oC) Relative humidity (%)
burn 1 9 38
burn 2 42 25
burn 3 21 35
burn 4 26 33
burn 5 18 34

  Total fuel Moisture content (%) Fire temp.* Fuel consumed
  (kg/ha) standing fuel fallen litter soil (oC) (%)
burn 1  11,540 38 51 43 225 43
burn 2  9,360 10 29 34 261 64
burn 3  10,380 33 33 23 224 51
burn 4  9,920 50 10 16 257 71
burn 5  11,300 33 25 26 234 74
*Approximate fire temperature was recorded using temperature pellets, each designed to melt at a specific temperature. These were arranged on a asbestos card, covered with mica and positioned 4 inches (10 cm) above ground level. This was the height at which maximum temperature occurred in this grassland.

Tiller density increased after burning or mowing (with harvester and lawn mower) in each treatment. The standing crop of plains rough fescue produced in the first growing season after treatment was decreased. Defoliation in early spring had little effect on the standing crop of plains rough fescue, however. The inflorescence density increased after burning or mowing on April 8th and June 1st. Plains rough fescue recovered to prefire levels by the 2nd year after burning following 1 spring or 1 fall burn. Details are as given below.

Yield of rough fescue herbage (kg/ha) produced in the current year, harvested in August 1978 after burning or mowing:

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned 2,491 1,702 972 ---- ----
mowed 2,153 1,663 1,026 ---- ----
control 2,885 3,427 3,386 ---- ----

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned 4,105 3,839 3,265 2,644 2,475
mowed 4,213 3,842 3,183 2,461, 2,353
control 3,733 4,182 3,917 3,675 3,566

Tiller density (number/m2) of plains rough fescue in 1978 and 1979 (after treatment in 1978):

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned 6,599 6,463 5,747 ---- ----
mowed 6,200 6,928 5,019 ---- ----
control 5,572 5,172 4,719 ---- ----

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned 11,588 11,075 9,613 10,850 11,313
mowed 10,525 10,738 10,125 11,200 10,975
control 7,975 7,125 8,575 8,013 7,500

Length (cm) of longest leaf of 2-leaf tillers of plains rough fescue in 1978 and 1979 (after treatment in 1978):

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned  30.15 25.8 24.7 ---- ----
mowed  28.0 22.2 21.6 ---- ----
control  39.8 42.5 39.2 ---- ----

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned  43.0 38.9 34.4 24.2 28.6
mowed  42.3 38.9 34.2 25.9 27.2
control  48.4 50.7 49.8 49.0 50.7

Leaf growth (cm) of plains rough fescue over a 9-day period in June, 1979:

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned  3.6 3.4 3.2 1.9 2.5
mowed  3.8 3.3 2.9 1.9 2.4
control  6.7 6.3 6.0 6.9 6.9

  Burn 1 Burn 2 Burn 3 Burn 4 Burn 5
burned  48 66 61 2 3
mowed  45 68 88 3 12
control  12 12 12 15 7

Plains rough fescue grasslands are tolerant of fire and can be maintained with fire. Spring burns may, in some instances, be more beneficial than fall burns. (Spring burns reduced standing herbage and tiller length the least, but increased inflorescence density the most). Annual burning in plains rough fescue grasslands stopped invasion of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Rough fescue is important livestock forage throughout its range. Plants are very productive and highly palatable to livestock and wildlife. Many grasslands in southern Canada are dominated by this species, and all 3 subspecies are important native forage grasses in Canada [1].

Plants are used throughout the growing season by a number of big game species including bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison. Rough fescue is the primary food for bison herds wintering in the quaking aspen parklands of southern Canada [53,76], and bison also utilize rough fescue heavily in fall. Summer bison use of rough fescue is described as "moderate" in Alberta [56].

Rough fescue is heavily use by elk on winter ranges in Montana. It is 1of the preferred winter range grasses in west-central Montana [34]. Jourdonnais and Bedunah [58] report that it is the most preferred forage for wintering elk on the Sun River Game Range of Montana. Elk consumption of rough fescue may also be fairly heavy in both spring and fall (20 and 27% "aggregated frequency") [90]. In northern Idaho, elk feed on rough fescue in mid-summer and fall, with higher use noted in late summer [63]. Rough fescue is also important late fall elk food in subalpine grasslands of British Columbia [82]. In Alberta, elk and cattle favor mountain rough fescue grasslands as feeding areas [11], and mountain rough fescue grasslands are important winter rangelands [114]. Seasonal elk use of rough fescue was as follows in west-central Alberta [77]:

Diet Consumption (%)

Dec.-May June July-Aug. Sept.-Nov.
88.2 56.7 0.4 64.7

Winter use of rough fescue by Rocky Mountain mule deer in the United States and in Alberta is described as "light" [66,94]. In Montana, white-tailed deer use rough fescue during winter in trace amounts [90] and in northern Idaho it is used in early summer [63]. Bighorn sheep make at least "moderate" use of rough fescue on winter ranges of Alberta. During July, rough fescue was the largest component of bighorn sheep diets [94]. Winter-ranging mountain goats feed on rough fescue on lower slopes, ridges, high ridges, and rock outcrops [48]. Snowshoe hares feed on rough fescue in summer [50].

Rough fescue is highly palatable forage. It is prime winter forage: plants cure well on the stalk and retain high nutrient levels during dormancy [104]. A number of wild ungulate species including bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison use rough fescue throughout the growing season by. Horses and cattle on summer ranges prefer the leaves and stalks. Removal of litter buildup through the use of fire or grazing generally increases winter palatability [59]. Elk avoid plants with large amounts of old litter [58].

Palatability of rough fescue is rated as follows [32,49]:

cattle good good good
domestic sheep good fair ---- (no data)
horses good good ----
elk good ---- ----
mule deer poor ---- ----

The nutritional quality of rough fescue is moderately high. This grass is considered excellent winter forage because it retains nutrients during dormancy [104].

In-vitro digestibility studies indicate that rough fescue ranks slightly above average in relative nutritive value among associated species on a rough fescue-dominated grassland in southwestern Alberta [18]. Rough fescue makes good-quality hay in southern Canada [23], with crude protein levels of 7% and total digestible nutrients ranging between 44 and 57%. Nutritional value by phenology is as follows [18]:

Phenology     % Digestible  protein     % Cellulose
leaf stage           6.6                                  33.2
heading              5.4                                  33.4
seed ripe           2.4                                  36.6
cured                 1.5                                  38.4
weathered         1.0                                  39.5

Additional nutritional values from southwestern Alberta were as follows [52]:

  dry matter (%) protein (%)  crude fat (%) crude fiber (%) ash (%) Ca (%) P (%)
leaf stage 92.70  13.68  3.02  29.85 6.85 0.22 0.16
heading 93.06 10.06 2.56 34.48 7.20 0.17 0.14
seed-ripe 92.80 6.62 3.15 34.62 6.58 0.22 0.08
cured 93.45 4.70 3.54 33.39 8.49 0.38 0.08
weathered 94.75 4.23 2.70 34.78 8.58 0.38 0.06

Levels of crude protein, phosphorus, and carotene decline with seasonal growth [52]. In central Montana, protein values in April averaged 17.0% [61]. In west-central Montana, nutritional values of rough fescue were as follows [34]:

stage crude protein (%) cellulose (%) hemicellulose (%) ash (%)
vegetative 5.4 45.3 27.2 8.4
boot 4.0 43.2 32.3 6.2
seedheads emerging 3.9 46.1 30.5 7.0
seed shatter 5.0 43.3 29.1 10.1
mature foliage 4.8 46.0 29.7 8.8
fall regrowth 4.0 45.5 32.6 7.4
ungrazed 5.0 46.0 28.8 8.2

Mean winter values are as follows [34]:

  % dry mass
crude protein 5
neutral-detergent fiber 79
acid-detergent fiber 49
acid-detergent lignin 3
cellulose 46
hemicellulose 30
ash 8

Rough fescue generally provides poor cover for small mammals, small nongame birds, and waterfowl in Montana [32]. Sharp-tailed grouse often nest under clumps of rough fescue in northwestern Montana [40].

Rough fescue is useful in rehabilitation projects because of its ability to form an extensive, fibrous root system [95]. Rough fescue has proven useful for roadside plantings [73].Rough fescue exhibited good survival when planted on alpine sites in Denali National Park, Alaska. Ninety-three percent of rough fescue plants survived 1 growing season without water or fertilization [31]. Fertilizer applications increased rough fescue survival in the Yukon [51].

No entry

The dense, tufted habit of the rough fescue makes it resistant to moderate grazing [1]. Heavy grazing can result in severely decreased rough fescue root depth and biomass [6]. As grazing pressure increased on rough fescue in Alberta, its basal area and number of viable soil-stored seeds declined [56].

Rough fescue is tolerant of winter grazing [55,104,114]. Approximately 80% utilization can occur during dormancy without any appreciable loss in summer vigor [59]. Dormant-season grazing may actually enhance plant vigor by stimulating tillering [112]. However, Campbell and others [23] suggest that maintenance of excellent or climax conditions is not possible on rough fescue ranges subjected to grazing.

Plains and mountain rough fescue are described as "sensitive" to summer grazing [62]. Plains rough fescue may be reduced by light to moderate grazing during the growing season in Alberta [116]; however, overall plant vigor may be unimpaired following light grazing [57,79]. In Alberta, rough fescue was not eliminated despite 80% utilization with light cattle stocking over a 32-year period in which seed was not produced and plants were described as "inconspicuous" [113,116]. A "modest increase" in cattle stocking led to a marked decline in range condition [113].

Numerous clipping studies have focused on rough fescue, and detailed information is available [72,111,116]. In Alberta, production potential was not affected by a single harvest at the end of August in 3 consecutive years. A single defoliation stimulated tillering, but additional cutting reduced tiller numbers [116]. Plants can be adversely affected by defoliation in September [72]. Clipping studies suggest that greatest mortality occurs when plants are clipped weekly to 2 inches (5 cm) from mid-May to late-June and then once in early September to remove regrowth [72]. Mortality also occurs following weekly, season-long defoliation [72]. 

Grazing can cause a general decline in rough fescue coverage. In western Montana, rough fescue is one of the 1st species to decline after grazing [24]. Common increasers with grazing include Idaho fescue, Parry's oatgrass (Danthonia parryi), needlegrass (Stipa spp.), prairie junegrass, and thread-leaved sedge (Carex filifolia). Heavy grazing in rough fescue prairie of Alberta led to decreases in rough fescue and increases in Parry oatgrass, Idaho fescue, and wheatgrass (Agropyron spp.) [33]. Prolonged heavy grazing leads to replacement by weedy species such as fringed sagebrush (Artemisia frigida), locoweed (Oxtropis campestris), pussytoes (Antennaria spp.), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) [29,33]. 

Basal area is a good indicator of grazing history on most sites. Following heavy grazing, large, robust bunches are typically reduced to small, inconspicuous shoots. On sites in southern Alberta receiving 17 years of continuous summer cattle grazing, mean percent basal area of rough fescue differed as follows [54]:

ungrazed (0%) lightly grazed (20%) moderately grazed (20%) heavily grazed (70%) very heavily grazed (90%)
 7.5% 5.8% 4.9% 1.8% 0.6%

It may be helpful to monitor grazing intensities on cattle and horse summer ranges receiving concentrated use throughout the growing season. To maintain plant vigor of rough fescue grasslands of Alberta, Campbell and others [23] recommend grazing intensities that retain 40 to 50% of the current year's growth and 20% of the seedstalks. Deferred-rotation and rest-rotation systems of grazing are recommended for rough fescue-dominated grasslands in Montana. On low elevation spring and fall ranges, grazing should not begin until late spring; early grazing of many sites results in exclusive utilization of rough fescue until other forage species become available [79]. Two to three summers of heavy grazing can effectively eliminate plants from sites in Alberta [55]. In Alberta, plants were nearly eliminated after 5 years of heavy grazing [115]. An erect growth habit permits easy removal of large portions of photosynthetic material. Continued close grazing greatly lowers vigor and eventually results in the death of the plant. Recovery from overgrazing is slow due to erratic seed production and limited tillering abilities. "Susceptibility to damage from heavy grazing may result from a limited ability of the species to produce lateral tillers from axillary meristems. Our observations suggest that tillering in rough fescue, especially when grazed, is not as vigorous as the data indicated" [55].

In interior British Columbia, rough fescue comprises up to 10% of the dry-matter yield of the middle grassland zone, and up to 50% of the dry-matter yield of the upper grassland zone [101]. Such attributes suggest that rough fescue can be managed as a key forage species on sites where it comprises more than 15% of the total plant composition [49,97].

Rough fescue grasslands are susceptible to weed invasion. In Montana, the low montane zone is particularly susceptible [37]. In parts of Montana, large areas of grasslands have been invaded by Douglas-fir, causing reductions in rough fescue [10]. Leafy spurge has invaded some rough fescue communities in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and in Glacier National Park [16]. Montana rough fescue communities are described as "fairly resistant" to invasion by spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe ssp. micranthos). Smooth brome (Bromus inermis) is invading many rough fescue sites in Saskatchewan [43]. Griltz and Romo [43] recommend monitoring ranges regularly for smooth brome invasion. "Brush" has invaded rough fescue grasslands in central Alberta [13].


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