Vegetation responses to sagebrush-reduction treatments measured by satellites

Publication Information

Author(s):
Aaron Johnston
Erik Beever
Jerod A. Merkle
Geneva W. Chong
Publication Date: 2018
Tags: Ecological Indicators

Time series of vegetative indices derived from satellite imagery constitute tools to measure ecological effects of natural and management-induced disturbances to ecosystems. Over the past century, sagebrush-reduction treatments have been applied widely throughout western North America to increase herbaceous vegetation for livestock and wildlife. We used indices from satellite imagery to 1) quantify effects of prescribed-fire, herbicide, and mechanical treatments on vegetative cover, productivity, and phenology, and 2) describe how vegetation changed over time following these treatments. We hypothesized that treatments would increase herbaceous cover and accordingly shift phenologies towards those typical of grass-dominated systems. We expected prescribed burns would lead to the greatest and most-prolonged effects on vegetative cover and phenology, followed by herbicide and mechanical treatments. Treatments appeared to increase herbaceous cover and productivity, which coincided with signs of earlier senescence ' signals expected of grass-dominated systems, relative to sagebrush-dominated systems. Spatial heterogeneity for most phenometrics was lower in treated areas relative to controls, which suggested treatment-induced homogenization of vegetative communities. Phenometrics that explain spring migrations of ungulates mostly were unaffected by sagebrush treatments. Fire had the strongest effect on vegetative cover, and yielded the least evidence for sagebrush recovery. Overall, treatment effects were small relative to those reported from field-based studies for reasons most likely related to sagebrush recovery, treatment specification, and untreated patches within mosaicked treatment applications. Treatment effects were also small relative to inter-annual variation in phenology and productivity that was explained by temperature, snowpack, and growing-season precipitation. Our results indicated that cumulative NDVI, late-season phenometrics, and spatial heterogeneity of several phenometrics may serve as useful indicators of vegetative change in sagebrush ecosystems.

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