Examining the assumptions of heterogeneity-based management for promoting plant diversity in a disturbance-prone ecosystem


Background Patch-burn management approaches attempt to increase overall landscape biodiversity by creating a mosaic of habitats using a patchy application of fire and grazing. We tested two assumptions of the patch-burn approach, namely that: (1) fire and grazing drive spatial patch differentiation in community structure and (2) species composition of patches change through time in response to disturbance. Methods We analyzed species cover data on 100 m2 square quadrats from 128 sites located on a 1 × 1 km UTM grid in the grassland habitats of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. A total of 20 of these sites were annually sampled for 12 years. We examined how strongly changes in species richness and species composition correlated with changes in management variables relative to independent spatial and temporal drivers using multiple regression and direct ordination, respectively. Results Site effects, probably due to edaphic differences, explained the majority of variation in richness and composition. Interannual variation in fire and grazing management was relatively unimportant relative to inherent site and year drivers with respect to both richness and composition; however, the effects of fire and grazing variables were statistically significant and interpretable, and bison management was positively correlated with plant richness. Conclusions There was some support for the two assumptions of patch-burn management we examined; however, in situ spatial and temporal environmental heterogeneity played a much larger role than management in shaping both plant richness and composition. Our results suggest that fine-tuning the application of fire and grazing may not be critical for maintaining landscape scale plant diversity in disturbance-prone ecosystems.