Submitted to: Journal of Environmental Quality
Publication Type: Review Article
Publication Acceptance Date: May 8, 2009
Publication Date: June 23, 2009
Citation: Skinner, R.H. 2009. Book Review: Ecology of the Shortgrass Steppe. Journal of Environmental Quality. 38:1781. Interpretive Summary: An interpretive summary is not required.
Technical Abstract: This book provides a comprehensive overview of the shortgrass steppe, the warmest, driest, and least productive region of the North American central grasslands. Encompassing an area from the Colorado-Wyoming border on the north to western Texas and southeastern New Mexico on the south; and from the Rocky Mountains on the west to the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles and western Kansas on the east, this is a region characterized by low precipitation, hot summers and cold winters. Because of its general unsuitability for crop production much of this land has survived as native grassland. This is the kind of book that only the most devoted fans of the shortgrass steppe will read from cover to cover. It addresses a wide range of topics including the topography, climate, soil development, vegetation, insects, birds, mammals, human settlement and land-use history of the region. Much of the information is derived from results of long-term studies conducted at the Shortgrass Steppe Long-Term Ecological Research site located at the USDA-ARS Central Plains Experimental Range and adjacent USDA Forest Service Pawnee National Grasslands. The book devotes particular attention to the role and impacts of disturbance on the shortgrass steppe. Along with climate, grazing by large native ungulates had the largest influence on shaping the current structure of the shortgrass steppe ecosystem. In the last 150 years, cattle have replaced bison as the predominant grazers of the shortgrass steppe, and at least four chapters in the book are devoted to the history and impacts of cattle grazing. Because the plant species of the region have evolved under grazing pressure, long-term grazing studies discussed in the book suggest that un-grazed rather than grazed communities are more likely to be invaded by exotic species, and that un-grazed communities are more representative of disturbance than are grazed communities. Chapter 13 discusses grassland biogeochemical processes, and how climatic, physiographic, biotic, and human use patterns all exert their control over the biogeochemistry of the region. The following chapter adds the soil-atmosphere exchange of trace gasses (methane and nitrous oxide) to the discussion. The authors suggest that the shortgrass steppe is an important sink for atmospheric methane, but a source of nitrous oxide. The final chapter looks at the future of the shortgrass steppe and its potential responses to three factors that will be driving forces for the future of the steppe: land-use change, atmospheric change and changes in diseases. Three general conclusions are drawn: 1) that responses will be slow; 2) that many of the changes will take place belowground and be hidden from view; and 3) that long-term sustainability will be determined by the landscape to regional-scale context of the changes. This book provides an excellent overview of the historical and current context against which future changes will be compared.