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Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii

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Rough fescue leaves. Leaves of species in the rough fescue complex are scabrous and rough to the touch. Wikimedia Commons image by Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana.


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: [].

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




for Festuca altaica:
Altai fescue
alpine rough fescue
northern rough fescue

for Festuca campestris:
rough fescue
mountain rough fescue

for Festuca hallii:
plains rough fescue

This review covers 3 species in the rough fescue complex (Poaceae):

Festuca altaica Trin., Altai fescue [14,66,112]
Festuca campestris Rydb., rough fescue [1,2,14,66,88,112]
Festuca hallii (Vasey) Piper, plains rough fescue [14,66,112]

These species are separated by morphology and ploidy level [14]. Altai and plains rough fescue are tetraploids, whereas rough fescue is octaploid [2,3]. In this review, these species are referred to by the full common names listed just above. The "rough fescue complex" refers to all 3 species.

for Festuca altaica:
   Festuca altaica subsp. altaica (Vasey) Harms
   Festuca altaica subsp. scabrella (Vasey) Harms
   Festuca altaica var. scabrella (Torr.) Breitung [49]
   Festuca scabrella Torr. [44,51]

for Festuca campestris:
   Festuca altaica var. major (Vasey) Gleason [1]
   Festuca scabrella var. major Vasey [115]

for Festuca hallii:
   Festuca altaica subsp. hallii (Vasey) Harms [49]


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
The rough fescue complex is circumboreal in distribution [7,11]. In North America, plants in the complex are widely distributed from Alaska southward to Oregon and Colorado [27,51,53]. The rough fescue complex forms a major prairie type of the northern Great Plains of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and North Dakota. The complex has a scattered distribution in the East, where it is most common in Michigan and the northeastern provinces [11,44,103,111].

Distributions of 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 [1,4,11,13,15,112]

rough fescue - from British Columbia east to Ontario and south to Montana and Oregon, Idaho, and Colorado [4,13,112]

plains rough fescue - scattered occurrences from eastern British Columbia east to Ontario and south to New Mexico and North Dakota [4,10,13,112]

Figure 2—Distributions of Altai fescue, rough fescue, and plains rough fescue, respectively. Maps courtesy of USDA, NRCS. 2018. The PLANTS Database. (2018, January 30) [112].

States and Provinces [112]:
United States:            

Plants in the rough fescue complex grow in grasslands, open forests, montane and subalpine grasslands, and in alpine, tundra, and arctic communities [88]. They are most prominent in a belt along the northern edge of the Great Plains, where they the principal dominants within the black-soil zone of Alberta, western Saskatchewan, and northwestern Montana [26]. They are generally associated with mesic grassland sites having annual precipitation of more than 14 inches (350 mm) and a short, cool growing season [103,117]. In Alberta and Saskatchewan, grasslands dominated by Altai and rough fescue have a subhumid climate and mean annual precipitation of approximately 22 inches (560 mm), 65% of which occurs between May and September [124].

Plants in the rough fescue complex grow on a number of soil types including loam and silty loams [70]. In eastern North America, Altai fescue populations are often localized on sand plains, serpentine barrens, limestone plains and basaltic slopes. In western North American, Altai fescue grows on slopes and plateaus in subalpine, alpine, taiga, and tundra zones in open forests, meadows, and grasslands [1].

Site preferences vary by species. Rough fescue is a dominant component of foothill grasslands. It occurs on more mesic and cooler sites than other species in the rough fescue complex [1]. 

Topography supporting plains rough fescue ranges from level to gently rolling. Plains and 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 species in the rough fescue complex ranges are as follows:

Location Range Species
Colorado 7,900-12,000 feet (2,400-3,700 m) rough fescue, plains rough fescue [32,125]
Montana 2,100-7,400 feet (600-2,300 m) Altai fescue [32]
Oregon 8,000-9,500 feet (2,400-2,900 m) Altai fescue [30]
Washington 2,000-6,000 feet (600-1,900 m) Altai fescue [53]
Wyoming 7,250-8,600 feet (2,200-2,600 m) plains rough fescue [110]
Alberta 2,000-7,500 feet (600-2,300 m) Altai fescue, rough fescue [74]
British Columbia 2,000-3,800 feet (600-1,200 m) Altai fescue, rough fescue [74,78]
Manitoba 1,200-2,400 feet (400-700 m) Altai fescue, rough fescue, plains rough fescue [125]
Saskatchewan 1,900-4,200 feet (600-1,000 m) Altai fescue, rough fescue [25,74,125]

Species in the rough fescue complex are dominant groundlayer plants in a number of nonforested and forested communities throughout their ranges. On grassland sites, they often late-seral dominants and have been used as series indicators [7,91,96]. Shrublands in which they are as an understory indicators include big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), and shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa subsp. floribunda)series [7,91,96].

Altai fescue dominates some grassland and forest types. It grows in tundra meadows in Alaska with downy ryegrass (Elymus innovatus) and bluegrass (Poa spp.) [113]. In Alaskan taiga communities, it grows on windy foothill sites with bluejoint (Calamagrostis canadensis) [114]. It also grows in boreal lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) forests [88]. On the steppes of Washington, Altai fescue is often associated with Idaho fescue/parsnipflower buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides) and Idaho fescue/common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) habitat types [28]. In the Northern Rocky Mountains, grassland types dominated by Altai fescue include Altai fescue-Idaho fescue (F. idahoensis) and Altai fescue-bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata). Habitat types where Altai fescue dominates the understory have been identified within limber pine (Pinus flexilis), ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) series [7,91,96].

Rough fescue is common in western Canada. It is a dominant component of several grassland associations of southern Alberta and British Columbia [1]. Common associates in rough fescue prairies include timber oatgrass (Danthonia intermedia), Idaho fescue (Festuca idahoensis), prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), bluegrass (Poa spp.), lupine (Lupinus spp.), and shrubby cinquefoil [20]. In central Alberta and Manitoba, rough fescue commonly grows in association with porcupinegrass (Hesperostipa spartea), western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), prairie Junegrass, timber oatgrass, and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) [6,12]. In British Columbia, rough fescue occurs in open ponderosa pine forests, in forests within the subalpine zone, and in grassy balds within forested areas [88].

Plains rough fescue commonly occurs in mixed-grass prairies with blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) [75] in parts of the northern Great Plains [49]. It overlaps with mountain rough fescue in parts of the Rocky Mountains [88]. Grazing and agriculture have largely eliminated plains rough fescue from many of the highly productive, low-elevation prairies it once occupied [6,103]. Historically, it also occurred in quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) parklands and benches along the Rocky Mountain foothills [45,109]. Griltz and Romo [46] estimate that less than 5% of prairie once dominated by plains rough fescue remains, primarily as small, isolated remnants.

Plant classifications describing communities dominated by species in the rough fescue complex are as follows:

Forest habitat types of Montana [91] (Altai fescue)
Forest regions of Montana [7] (Altai fescue)
Grassland and shrubland habitats of western Montana [87] (Altai fescue)
Soil and vegetation inventory of near-pristine sites in Montana [96] (Altai fescue, plains rough fescue)
The fescue grasslands of western Canada [74] (Altai fescue)
The grasslands of the southern interior of British Columbia [108] (Altai fescue, plains rough fescue)
The fescue grasslands of Alberta [86] (Altai fescue, plains rough fescue)

See the appendix for lists of vegetation classifications in which these species occur.


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii

Plants in the rough fescue complex are erect, native, cool-season, perennial bunchgrasses. Root crowns grow in thick mats and have persistent sheaths [1,27] (fig. 3). Depending on species, plants may be caespitose or rhizomatous in habit [88,105] (see Species descriptions). Culms typically range from 2 to 3.5 feet (0.6-1.0 m) tall, although plant heights to 5 feet (1.5 m) have been recorded. Leaves 12 to 16 inches (30-40 cm). Species in the rough fescue complex have rough, scabrous leaf blades, rachises, and lemmas [103].

Figure 3—Persistent root crowns and leaf sheaths of rough fescue. Flickr image by Matt Lavin.

Individual plants often form large-diameter bunches. Moss and Campbell [86] reported crown diameters of 10 to 20 inches (25-50 cm) for Altai fescue 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 of 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]. In Alberta, maximum root depth of plains rough fescue averaged 6 inches (15 cm), and maximum rhizome lengths were approximately 23 inches (60 cm) [85].

Species descriptions: Culm height, color, and other characteristics differ by species [88]. In the field, the species are distinguished primarily by growth habit and other morphological characteristics, and there is overlap among them. Botanical characteristics of each species follow.

Altai fescue is usually densely caespitose, although short, inconspicuous rhizomes are infrequently present. Leaves are yellowish to dark green [1,88]. 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 [14,49,88]. 

Rough fescue is densely caespitose, with occasional short rhizomes,. Leaves are bluish to gray-green [14,49,88]. Rough fescue is relatively tall and forms large clumps consisting of up to 25 culms [88]. Culms generally range from 16 to 36 inches (40-90 cm) in height, with 4 to 6 florets per spikelet [1]. Rough fescue has double the chromosome number of the other 2 species [88].

Plains rough fescue is mat forming in habit, with short, creeping rhizomes. Leaves are bluish to gray-green. 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 and less strongly tufted than the other species [1,14,68].

Figure 4—Plains rough fescue fibrous roots and rhizomes. Image by Brian Elliott, Environmental Consulting. Used with permission.


These species are cool-season grasses that are well adapted to a short growing season. They typically initiate growth immediately following snowmelt and complete growth before the onset of summer drought. On most sites, plants cure by early October [61]. Reserve carbohydrate levels are at low levels in April or May [64], when growth resumes. On montane grassland sites in interior British Columbia, Altai fescue and rough fescue initiate growth in early spring (usually by mid-April) and cease growth by late June [105]. In British Columbia, culm growth begins in late May and ceases by the time leaf growth has ended. Soil temperatures at depths of 4 inches (10 cm) ranged from 36.7 to 37.2 o Fahrenheit (2.6-2.9 oC) [105]. Growth initiation may be more closely related to soil temperature than to soil water content or to air temperature. In Alberta, Johnston and McDonald [61] 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 of rough fescue typically occurs from mid-May to mid-June, with seed dispersal from mid- to late July. Maximum plant weights were attained in late June, after culm and blade elongation had ceased. Summer growth is controlled primarily by water availability [105]. Fall regrowth occasionally occurs in plains rough fescue in Manitoba [109]. In British Columbia, fall regrowth of rough fescue occurred in 2 out of 3 years in September or October. Lack of regrowth was attributed to defoliation [105].

Dates of phenological development of Altai fescue over a 3-year period on 2 sites in interior British Columbia [105].
Phenological stage
3,798 feet (1,160 m)
2,800 feet (850 m)
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 [109]. Although plains rough fescue flowers 2 to 3 weeks earlier than 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].

The rough fescue complex regenerates from seed, tillers, and sometimes from rhizomes [88,105].

Seed production: As is the case with most cool-season grasses, the seed crop 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 crown. Floral initiation occurs primarily during late August and early September. Flowers are gradually elevated to 0.6-inch (15.2-mm) during the winter months. Rapid culm elongation occurs during May and early June [105].

Year-to-year germination and seed production is variable. Studies in southern Alberta found seed production of rough fescue was erratic, with several years elapsing without appreciable seed set. Important seed years were 1902, 1952, 1964, and 1966 [61]. Plains rough fescue produces seed only infrequently [95]. Seed production of species in the rough fescue complex is not consistently related to basal area or the number of tillers per plant. Stout and others [105] found prolonged low temperatures enhanced seed development of these species.

Griltz and others [47] 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 [62]. According to Griltz and others [47] germination in the rough fescue complex is controlled more by water availability than temperature. For example, plains rough fescue is known to germinate over a wide range of temperatures. Germination was highest at constant temperatures of 59 and 68 oF (15 and 20 oC) [95]. Germination of species in the rough fescue complex is reduced by exposure to moist conditions at low temperatures [47]. In field trials in southern Alberta, Johnston and MacDonald [61] reported germination rates of 86 to 96.5% for Altai fescue. Details on germination characteristics of species in the rough fescue complex by temperature, light, and osmotic potential are available in these sources: [47,95,100,101].

Stands typically take from 3 to 4 years to fully develop. Initial establishment is enhanced on sites that receive protection from grazing. Establishment of plains rough fescue is likely highest where neighboring plants have died or at some distance from established plains rough fescue plants [47].

Vegetative reproduction: All species in the rough fescue complex reproduce by tillering [1,27,41]. Vegetative regeneration may be reduced by heavy grazing [95].

Altai fescue sometimes reproduces from short, inconspicuous rhizomes [1,14].

Rough fescue rarely produces rhizomes [14,49,88]. Its tillers appear to survive "several" years and become larger with age [41]. Most tillers are vegetative and lack flowering culms [118].

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 [95].

Plants in the rough fescue complex occur in early, seral, and climax communities. Fire or grazing sets back succession to early stages. These fescues are components of early postfire communities following top-kill by fire [77,86]. In rough fescue-dominated prairie foothill communities of Alberta, succession to a "near climax state" requires more than 20 years following heavy grazing [33]. Complete recovery of Altai fescue following light grazing in southwestern Alberta took approximately 14 years [120]. Plants in the rough fescue complex also characteristic of many late-successional mountain grassland and fescue prairie communities [77,86].

Altai fescue is common soon after fire in quaking aspen woodlands of Alaska [75]. It is also prevalent on some black spruce (Picea mariana) sites 40 to 100 years after fire in British Columbia [90]. It occurs in early stages of succession in tundra communities of the Alaska Range. It is present into the early shrub stage, but does not reproduce sexually. By the late shrub stage, Altai fescue is no longer present. Generalized succession in these tundra communities is as follows [113]:

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

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


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Fire adaptations: Plants in the rough fescue complex are well adapted to periodic burning. Their dense, tufted habit makes them resistant to "light" fire [1]. Their primary postfire survival strategy is through sprouting of top-killed plants and from off-site wind-dispersed seed [107]. Although plants are initially top-killed, recovery of prefire coverages and herbage production is usually attained in 2 to 3 years [106]. 

Susceptibility to fire is related to fire severity, frequency, and season [107]. Root crowns accumulate coarse leaf sheath stubble that persists from year to year. During burning, densely packed stubble accumulations insulate perennating buds located near the soil surface [61,83]. Reductions in plant vigor are more long lasting following growing-season burns than dormant-season burns. Postfire recovery rates decline the further into the growing season plants are burned [12,99]. Survival may be low where reduced fire frequencies have resulted in large-diameter bunches or tufts with heavy litter buildup: Root crowns tend to continue burning long after passage of the flame front [6,126].

Fire regimes: Antos and others [6] suggest that fire frequencies in the range of 5 to 10 years best maintain species in the rough fescue complex. In parts of Saskatchewan, presettlement fire-return intervals in plains rough fescue communities are estimated at 2 to 10 years [93]. Barrett [15] estimates presettlement fire-return intervals of 10 to 18 years in ponderosa pine/rough fescue communities in Idaho.

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 plants in the rough fescue complex are common.

Community or Ecosystem Dominant Species Fire Return Interval Range
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 [89]
Great Lakes spruce-fir Picea-Abies spp. 35 to >200 [35]
Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine* Pinus contorta var. latifolia 25-300+ [8,9,94]
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 [9,48,82]
aspen-birch Populus-Betula spp. 35-200 [35,116]
*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
These species are initially top-killed by fire [107] and are moderately resistant to fire-caused mortality. Leaves are coarse, and root crowns are protected by the persistent, coarse leaf sheaths. This morphology makes plants in the rough fescue complex less susceptible to prolonged burning than finer-leaved bunchgrasses lacking such root crown protection, such as Idaho fescue [126]. Accumulations of coarse leaf sheath stubble insulate perennating buds located near the ground surface [83]. Most plants in the rough fescue complex survive fires that occur during dormancy or under the high-moisture conditions occurring during spring and sometimes late fall fires [12,65,73].

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 fuel high-severity fires [107]. Fires that penetrate the duff layer and burn into the root crowns increase belowground temperatures that can damage belowground tissues [19,107]. Fire damage can be particularly severe, and mortality can occur, on sites where reduced fire frequencies have resulted in heavy litter buildups within large-diameter bunches [6].

Plants in the rough fescue complex can be severely damaged by severe summer or early fall wildfires. Altai fescue cover was significantly reduced by an early summer wildfire (28 June 1977) 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. Altai 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].

Species in the rough fescue complex recover from fire by tillering, sprouting from the root crown, and regenerating from seed [1,45,99,106,107]. Plains rough fescue also sprouts from rhizomes; the other species may do so infrequently (see General Botanical Characteristics). Cover of these fescues 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 [107]. Burning season and fire severity influence the rate of recovery. Despite burning at high temperatures, these species can sometimes initiate conspicuous green shoots within a week after the fire. Plants are generally unharmed by burning if the plant is dormant [4]. Late summer or autumn lightning fires apparently enhanced postfire growth of rough fescue in Oregon [4].

Plains rough fescue sprouting in postfire year 1 after a 2012 fire on Indian Ridge, Wyoming. Image by Brian Elliott, Environmental Consulting. Used with permission.

Spring burns can adversely affect flower development, and seed production can be reduced. However, in a southeastern British Columbia study, spring fires had no significant effect on rough fescue cover or seed production [12,107]. Elevated soil moistures which are associated with late fall fire may lower damage from fire. Early spring growth and flower development were reported following the fall fires in British Columbia. Earlier growth was attributed to increased soil temperatures resulting from greater heat absorption from the blackened surface [107].

Nonrhizomatous Altai and rough fescue appear more susceptible to fire damage than rhizomatous 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 with increasing bunch size following a hot, early summer wildfire in Montana. Crowns less than 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter sprouted vigorously, whereas sprouting was inhibited in crowns greater than 7.8 inches (20 cm) in diameter. Three years after the fire, average coverage of Altai fescue on burned sites was 11.1% versus 29.9% in unburned areas. Where fire was severe, herbage production remained below unburned levels for 2 to 3 postfire years [6].

Cover of these species 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. Altai 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 Altai fescue cover but maintained prefire annual production during postfire year 1.

Generally, plains rough fescue responds to fire with 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 [45] reported reduced tillering of plains rough fescue following spring or fall burns in communities with patchy smooth brome (Bromus inermis). Sinton [99] 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 of Altai fescue 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% [93]. Plants in the rough fescue complex initiate floral development in the fall. Growing points are gradually elevated during the winter from 0.4 inch (12.6 mm) above the root crown in October to 1.5 inches (40 cm) above in May [61]. Bailey and Anderson [12] suggest that floral initiation is not affected by spring fires; but by May, the greater height of reproductive growing points leaves them susceptible to fire damage. Seed development of Altai fescue on burned sites in Alberta approximated that on unburned sites within 2 growing seasons. Fall fires had no effect on subsequent seed head development [12].

In Montana, plains 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 [45]:

  Spring burn (1988) Fall burn (1987) Unburned
1987 August 1,065 1,860 1,190
1988 September 1,425 1,180 1,170
1989 August 1,275 1,905 1,110

For further information on plains rough fescue response to fire, see the Fire Case Study. The following Research Project Summaries also provide information postfire responses of species in the rough fescue complex, and on use of prescribed fire in plant communities in which they occur:

Prescribed fire frequencies of 5 to 10 years are recommended for mountain grassland sites where management objectives are aimed at rough fescue maintenance [5]. Long fire-return intervals may result in reduced cover when fire finally returns. Large concentrations of dead plant material develop around root crowns in the absence of fire and/or grazing, resulting in high mortality when fire occurs [47]. Annual spring burning studies on quaking aspen parkland sites in Alberta suggest very short fire-return intervals impede reestablishment of species in the rough fescue complex, while long fire-return intervals produce high mortality due to excessive fuel buildup [47].

It is recommended that spring fires 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 [5,99]. In northwestern Montana, fall fires increased the chances of soil erosion by wind or water, leaving rough fescue more susceptible to frost damage. Fall fires may also reduce important elk forage, including rough fescue, during the 1st winter after burning [64].

Protein content (%) of plants in the rough fescue complex may be increased by burning. In central Montana, protein content of Altai fescue ranged from 6.0 to 8.9% on unburned control sites, and from 8.1 to 14.6% on burned sites [67].

Heavy grazing generally hampers fire's ability to ignite and spread, and severe livestock grazing can restrict fire occurrence in rough fescue grasslands [10].


SPECIES: Festuca hallii
Tirmenstein, D., compiler. 2000. Effect of prescribed fires on plains rough fescue in Alberta. 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: [].

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 [41].

spring, summer, fall/severity 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. Shortbristle needle and thread (Hesperostipa curtiseta) occurred on drier sites, along with minor occurrences of bearded wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), cerastium (Cerastium spp.), thickspike wheatgrass (E. lanceolatus), and sedges (Carex spp.), including blunt sedge (C. obtusata).

Burning was conducted on 5 separate treatment dates:

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

The study site is located on Viking moraine consisting of loam and sandy loam soils. Annual precipitation averages 17 inches (422 mm).

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

Burn 1) 8 April - high moisture content of fallen litter resulted in mostly standing fuel burning and only 43% consumption
Burn 2) 27 April - moisture content of litter was 29% when the fire temperatures were highest
Burn 3) 1 June - no additional information
Burn 4) 31 July - conditions were driest on July 31st, but precipitation at the time of burning increased moisture of the standing fuel
Burn 5) 19 October - greatest percentage of fuel burned on this date

  Air temperature (oC) Relative humidity (%)
Burn 1 9 38
Burn2 42 25
Burn3 21 35
Burn4 26 33
Burn5 18 34

  Total fuel Moisture content (%) Fire temperature* 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 an 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 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 8 April and 1 June. 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 (after treatment in 1978):

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


SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Species in the rough fescue complex are important livestock forage throughout their range. Plants are very productive and highly palatable to livestock and wildlife. Many grasslands in southern Canada are dominated by these species, and all 3 are important native forage grasses [1].

These fescues are used throughout the growing season by a number of big game species including bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison. They are the primary food for bison herds wintering in the quaking aspen parklands of southern Canada [59,84]. In Alberta, bison utilize rough fescue heavily in fall. Their summer use of rough fescue is described as "moderate" [62].

Elk seek species in the rough fescue complex as forage. They use Altai fescue heavily on winter ranges in west-central Montana [34]. On the Sun River Game Range of Montana, Altai fescue is the most preferred forage of wintering elk [64]. Elk consumption may also be fairly heavy in spring and fall (20 and 27% "aggregated frequency") [98]. In northern Idaho, elk feed on Altai fescue in midsummer and fall, with highest use in late summer [69]. Altai fescue is also important late fall elk food in subalpine grasslands of British Columbia [90]. In Alberta, elk and cattle favor these fescue species as forage, seeking Altai fescue rangelands [11], and rough fescue winter rangelands [121]. Seasonal elk use of Altai fescue was as follows in west-central Alberta [85]:

Diet consumption (%) of Altai fescue
Dec.-May June July-Aug. Sept.-Nov.
88.2 56.7 0.4 64.7

A number of wildlife species—including bighorn sheep, mule deer, elk, and bison—use these fescues throughout the growing season [65]. Winter use of these species by Rocky Mountain mule deer in the United States and Alberta is described as "light" [72,102]. In Montana, white-tailed deer graze Altai fescue during winter in trace amounts [98]; in northern Idaho, they graze it in early summer [69]. Bighorn sheep make at least "moderate" use of rough fescue on winter ranges of Alberta. During July, it was the largest component of bighorn sheep diets [102]. Winter-ranging mountain goats feed on these fescues on low ridges and slopes, and on exposed high ridges and rock outcrops [52]. Snowshoe hares feed on Altai and rough fescue in summer [56].

These fescues are highly palatable forage [111]. 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 [65]. Elk avoid plants with large amounts of old litter [64].

Palatability of Altai fescue is rated as follows [32,53]:

Species MT ND WA
cattle good good good
domestic sheep good fair ---- (no data)
horses good good ----
elk good ---- ----
mule deer poor ---- ----

The nutritional quality of these fescues is moderately high. They are considered excellent winter forage because plants cure well on the stalk, retaining fairly high nutrient levels [111].

In-vitro digestibility studies indicate that these fescues rank slightly above average in relative nutritive value among associated species on grasslands in southwestern Alberta [18]. They make good-quality hay in southern Canada [23], with crude protein levels of 7% and total digestible nutrients ranging between 44 and 57%. Nutritional value of Altai fescue by phenological stage is as follows [18]:

Stage 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

Nutritional value of Altai fescue from southwestern Alberta was as follows [58]:

Stage 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 [58]. In central Montana, protein values of Altai fescue in April averaged 17.0% [67]. In west-central Montana, nutritional values of Altai 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

These species generally provide poor cover for small mammals, small nongame birds, and waterfowl [32]. However, sharp-tailed grouse often nest under clumps of Altai fescue in northwestern Montana [42].

Plants in the rough fescue complex are useful in rehabilitation/erosion projects because of their extensive, fibrous root system [103]. They have proven useful for roadside plantings [81]. Altai fescue exhibited good survival when planted on alpine sites in Denali National Park, Alaska. Ninety-three percent of Altai fescue plants survived 1 growing season without water or fertilization [31]. Fertilizer applications increased Altai fescue survival in the Yukon [57].

No information was available on this topic.

The dense, tufted habit of these fescues makes them resistant to moderate grazing [1]. Heavy grazing can result in severely decreased root depths and biomass [6]. As grazing pressure increased on Altai fescue plants in Alberta, their basal area and number of viable soil-stored seeds declined [62].

These fescues tolerate winter grazing [61,111,121]. Approximately 80% utilization can occur during dormancy without any appreciable loss in summer vigor [65]. Dormant-season grazing may actually enhance plant vigor by stimulating tillering [119]. However, Campbell and others [23] suggest that maintenance of excellent or climax conditions is not possible on fescue ranges subjected to grazing.

Plains and rough fescue are described as "sensitive" to summer grazing [68]. Plains rough fescue may be reduced by light to moderate grazing during the growing season in Alberta [123]; however, overall plant vigor may be unimpaired following light grazing [63,87]. 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" [120,123]. A "modest increase" in cattle stocking led to a marked decline in range condition [120].

Numerous clipping studies have focused on these species, and detailed information is available in these sources: [80,118,123]. In Alberta, production potential of Altai fescue 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 [123]. Plants can be adversely affected by defoliation in September [80]. Clipping studies suggest that greatest mortality occurs when plants are grazed weekly to 2 inches (5 cm) from mid-May to late-June and then once in early September to remove regrowth [80]. Mortality also occurs following weekly, season-long defoliation [80]. 

Grazing can cause a general decline in coverage of these fescues. In western Montana, Altai 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 (Hesperostipa 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 (Triticeae) [33]. Prolonged heavy grazing leads to replacement by weedy species such as fringed sagebrush (Artemisia frigida), locoweed (Oxtropis campestris), pussytoes (Antennaria spp.), common 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 by percent utilization differed as follows [60]:

      Utilization Ungrazed
Lightly grazed
Moderately grazed
Heavily grazed
Very heavily grazed
Basal area  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 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 fescue-dominated grasslands in Montana. On low elevation spring and fall ranges, it is recommended that grazing not begin until late spring; earlier grazing may results in exclusive utilization of fescues until other forage species become available [87]. Two to three summers of heavy grazing can effectively eliminate these fescues from sites in Alberta [61]. In Alberta, Altai fescue was nearly eliminated after 5 years of heavy grazing [122]. 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. Johnston and MacDonald [61] report that for rough fescue and plains rough fescue, "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".

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 [108]. Several authors suggest that Altai fescue can be managed as a key forage species on sites where it comprises more than 15% of the total plant composition [53,105].

Fescue grasslands are susceptible to invasion by woody species and nonnative herbs. "Brush" has invaded fescue-dominated grasslands in central Alberta [13]. In Montana, the low montane zone is particularly susceptible to establishment of native woody and nonnative herbaceous species [39]. In parts of Montana, large areas of Altai fescue-dominated grasslands have been invaded by Douglas-fir, causing reductions in Altai fescue [10]. Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) has invaded some Altai fescue communities in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and in Glacier National Park [16]. However, rough fescue communities in Montana are described as "fairly resistant" to invasion of spotted knapweed (Centaurea stoebe subsp. micranthos). Smooth brome has invaded Altai, rough, and plains rough fescue grasslands in Saskatchewan [46]. Griltz and Romo [46] recommend monitoring fescue ranges regularly for smooth brome invasion.

Appendix: Plant Classification Lists

SPECIES: Festuca altaica, F. campestris, F. hallii
Vegetation classifications in which species in the rough fescue complex occur.

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


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