Evaluating the use of fire to control shrub encroachment in global drylands: A synthesis based on ecosystem service perspective.


State Key Laboratory of Earth Surface Processes and Resources Ecology, Faculty of Geographical Science, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China; Institute of Land Surface System and Sustainable Development, Faculty of Geographical Science, Beijing Normal University, Beijing 100875, China. Electronic address: [Email]


With the proliferation of woody plant species in much of the world's grasslands, human has manipulated landscape fire to return their forage provisioning service. Yet other ecosystem services (e.g., carbon sequestration, biodiversity conservation, erosion control) in the post-managed areas compared to those previously available in the shrub-encroached area are largely unknown, including trade-offs between ecosystem services. Using data from previous publications, we quantitatively synthesized the sustainability of fire as shrub management practice, expressed as its efficacy to control shrubs and its capacity to maintain different ecosystem services. A simple indicator (δ), defined as the ratio of an observed ecological attribute between area experiencing shrub management and untreated control, was used to quantify the changes. Our results showed that fire could be an effective strategy to control shrubs and to increase forage provisioning service (δherbaceous biomass = 1.39). However, there are possible trade-offs with other ecosystem services (e.g., erosion control, nutrient cycling) when a 54% increase in bare soil cover (δbare soil = 1.54) and ~74% loss of biological soil crusts cover (δbiological crust = 0.26) were found. Because increasing forage provisioning at the cost of other ecosystem services might not be sustainable, management should focus on strategies to minimize such trade-offs, which may include but not limited to rotational grazing, adjustment in stocking rate, or supplementary external inputs (e.g., fertilizer). Unless those measures are employed, there is possible emergence of a novel crash (i.e., vegetation- and resource-poor scabland) resulting from a combination of soil erosion and high vulnerability of burnt landscape to exotic species invasion.