Reestablishing historical fire regimes is a high priority for North American coniferous forests, particularly ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) ecosystems. These forests are also used extensively for cattle (Bos spp.) grazing. Prescribed fires are being applied on or planned for millions of hectares of these forests to reduce fuel loads, alter forest structure, and maintain and enhance the productivity of native plant communities. However, cattle grazing is ubiquitous in ponderosa pine forests and the consequences of post-fire cattle grazing on plant communities are not well understood. We evaluated cattle grazing effects (grazing, no grazing) on upland bunchgrass and Carex geyeri dominated ponderosa pine plant communities over five growing seasons after prescribed fires (spring reburn, fall reburn, no burn). Vegetation was measured prior to a 5-year interval reburn and the subsequent exclusion of cattle, and in the second and fifth growing seasons thereafter. We found no interactions between reburning and grazing for the understory response variables. For all reburn treatments, including unburned areas, five growing seasons of cattle grazing exclusion significantly increased: (1) total vegetative cover, (2) native perennial forb cover, (3) grass stature, (4) grass flowering stem density, and (5) the cover of some shrub species and functional groups. Grazing exclusion did not strongly affect plant compositional patterns, although differences were detected. Compared to unburned areas, neither spring nor fall reburning increased perennial native species cover or richness, and reburning reduced sedge cover. Fall reburning increased cover of native colonizers, and exotic species cover and richness (largely Bromus tectorum and Cirsium vulgare), although overall exotic cover remains low (<1 %). We document several potentially chronic impacts of cattle grazing in both burned and unburned areas, and show that the understory release from a long history of cattle grazing caused a greater degree of change than the initial reintroduction of fire. If a goal of ecological restoration in these forests is increased cover of native perennial plants, and the potential for increased native perennial grass reproduction, then cattle grazing exclusion, or a change in cattle management, could provide critically important options in restoration plans.
Kerns, Becky K.; Buonopane, Michelle; Thies, Walter G.; Niwa, Christine. 2011. Reintroducing fire into a ponderosa pine forest with and without cattle grazing: understory vegetation response. Ecosphere. 2(5): 1-23.