Blazing and grazing: influences of fire and bison on tallgrass prairie stream water quality

1024 681 Stroud Water Research Center

Larson, D.M., B.P. Grudzinski, W.K. Dodds, M. Daniels, A. Skibbe, and A. Joern. 2013. Freshwater Science 32(3):779–791.

doi: 10.1899/12-118.1


Fire and grazers (such as Bison bison) were historically among the most important agents for maintaining and managing tallgrass prairie, but we know little about their influences on water-quality dynamics in streams. We analyzed 2 y of data on total suspended solids (TSS), total N (TN), and total P (TP) (3 samples per week per stream during flow) in 3 prairie streams with fire and bison grazing treatments at Konza Prairie Biological Station, Kansas (USA), to assess whether fire and bison increase the concentrations of these water-quality variables. We quantified the spatial and temporal locations of bison (∼0.21 animal units/ha) with Global Positioning System collars and documented bison trails, paw patches, wallows, and naturally exposed sediment patches within riparian buffers. Three weeks post-fire, TN and TP decreased (t-test, p < 0.001), but TSS did not change. Bison spent <6% of their time within 10 m of the streams, increased the amount of exposed sediment in the riparian areas, and avoided wooded mainstem branches of stream (χ2 test, p < 0.001). Temporal trends suggest that low discharge or increased bison density in the stream may increase TSS and TP during the summer months. Our results indicate a weak connection between TSS and nutrients with bison access to streams over our 2-y study and indicate that low TSS and nutrients characterize tallgrass prairie streams with fire and moderate bison densities relative to surrounding land uses.