The interactive effects of prescribed fire timing and climate change on Midwestern tallgrass prairie communities - Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program
Document Type: Report
Author(s): Jonathan J. Henn; Ellen I. Damschen
Publication Year: 2020

Cataloging Information

  • climate change
  • post-fire seedling establishment
  • season of burn
  • seedling establishment
  • snow depth
  • tallgrass prairie
  • Wisconsin
JFSP Project Number(s):
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: October 12, 2020
FRAMES Record Number: 62083


In this study we examined how the season of fire, combined with snow manipulation to simulate winter climate change, affect tallgrass prairie plant responses. Managers often apply prescribed fire in tallgrass prairie in the spring, but historically, fire likely occurred throughout the year. The timing of fire is known to affect plant responses, so continual spring burning may favor certain plants over others. In addition, due to the potential for dead litter to insulate the soil over cold winter conditions, the timing of fire could interact with winter conditions to negatively impact plants and animals. We aimed to test whether burning in the fall vs. the spring, along with removing or adding snow during the winter affect winter soil temperature dynamics, prairie plant performance, seed establishment, and plant community composition and diversity. We did this by installing a replicated field experiment for three years where plots were burned annually in either the spring or fall and subplots had snow manipulation applied during the winter. We found that soil temperatures get much colder when snow depth is reduced and dead litter is removed before the winter by burning or mowing. However, snow reduction and fall burn/mow also resulted in earlier thaw timing, increasing the length of the growing season. Plants emerged earlier in fall burn treatments and flowered earlier in both spring and fall burn treatments while mowing did not affect plant responses. Seed establishment was almost negligible in all treatments, but seed predation was high during the time when we added seeds. Removing litter while seed predation was otherwise high reduced seed predation substantially. Finally, all fire and mowing treatments increased species diversity and richness compared to control plots. Overall, this indicates the importance of managing prairies with disturbance. However, the timing of that disturbance does not have strong positive or negative effects on plant responses, so a mixture of disturbance timing is likely to promote the highest plant diversity. Winter conditions had strong effects on winter soil temperatures, but minimal effects on plant responses, indicating that prairie plants can tolerate extreme winter conditions.

Online Link(s):
Link to this document (1.0 MB; pdf)
Henn, Jonathan J.; Damschen, Ellen I. 2020. The interactive effects of prescribed fire timing and climate change on Midwestern tallgrass prairie communities - Final Report to the Joint Fire Science Program. JFSP Project ID: 16-2-01-26. University of Wisconsin-Madison. 30 p.