Ph.D. Student John Wendt Awarded Graduate Research Innovation Grant from the Joint Fire Science Program

John Wendt

John Wendt, a graduate student in the Department of Earth Sciences at MSU, and Dave McWethy, Assistant Research Professor of Earth Sciences at MSU and Wendt's advisor, have been awarded a Graduate Research Innovation (GRIN) grant from the Joint Fire Science Program's (JFSP) to support research into how Northern Great Plains ecosystems respond to climatic shifts and changes in fire and grazing. The award for Wendt's project, titled "Fire-herbivore-climate dynamics in the Northern Great Plains," supports the development of a dynamic vegetation-fire model that will be integrated with long-term records of ecosystem change (lake sediments and tree rings) and remote sensing data.

North American rangelands are experiencing widespread and rapid woody plant encroachment. Understanding the implications of this ongoing biome shift for fuel properties, fire risk, post-fire succession, and general ecosystem dynamics is a critical need for natural resource managers and communities. Altered fire regimes are widely recognized as a primary cause and consequence of recent woody plant expansion in Great Plains grasslands; however, the importance of fire in regulating woody plant abundance is poorly understood due to the scarcity of long-term historical records of vegetation and wildfire activity in the region. Furthermore, little is known about how feedbacks and interactions between grazing and fire activity could promote or inhibit woody plant expansion into the future. These knowledge gaps limit the ability to develop informed management strategies for promoting social and ecological resilience to potentially dramatic increases in the frequency, size and, severity of fires that could impact communities and ecosystems throughout the NGP. This study seeks to improve understanding of the role of fire and herbivory in annual-to-millennial-scale ecosystem dynamics in the NGP, a region of global conservation importance. The primary objectives of this research are (1) to identify the factors that govern wildfire activity and woody vegetation in prairie and woodland ecosystems and, (2) to better understand possible future trajectories and management responses. This project will address the following question: How do fire and herbivory interact to influence plant community structure and composition at forest-grassland ecotones and what are the consequences for future fire impacts, planning and response?

The project will build upon an ongoing collaboration with Jack Brookshire (Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, MSU) and Bryce Currey (Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, MSU) to investigate the causes and consequences of woody plant expansion in the Northern Great Plains as well as efforts of the Grasslands Resilience Working Group to understand challenges to social-ecological resilience in Montana’s rangelands. Other collaborators on the project include Carol Miller (U.S. Forest Service, RMRS-Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute), Michael Battaglia (U.S. Forest Service, RMRS-Forestry Sciences Lab, Fort Collins), and Vita Wright (U.S. Forest Service, RMRS-Human Factors & Risk Management RD&A).



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