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Title: The potential of novel native plant materials for the restoration of novel ecosystems

item Jones, Thomas
item Monaco, Thomas
item Rigby, Craig

Submitted to: Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 4/6/2015
Publication Date: 5/22/2015
Citation: Jones, T.A., Monaco, T.A., Rigby, C.W. 2015. The potential of novel native plant materials for the restoration of novel ecosystems. Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene. doi: 10.12952/journal.elementa.000047.

Interpretive Summary: The sagebrush-steppe ecosystem in the Intermountain West has been greatly modified by invasive annual grasses, recurrent wildfire, loss of native plant species, and altered nutrient and hydrologic cycling. The degraded ecological state that results is highly recalcitrant to restoration efforts. We argue that best practices when the "patient" is sick differ from those for healthy patients. Hence, development of populations of perennial species that can establish, survive, and reproduce, and recruit a new generation of seedlings under the modified conditions holds promise for ecological restoration of the modified sagebrush steppe. Such plant materials may be justified when local genotypes no longer display sufficient ecological fitness due to extensive ecosystem modification.

Technical Abstract: Aldo Leopold is considered by many to be the father of restoration ecology in North America. While a professor of wildlife management at the University of Wisconsin, he labored 13 years to restore a functioning ecosystem to badly damaged Sauk County farmland that he purchased at the height of the Great Depression. Here, we detail the extensive ecological change sustained by another ecosystem, the sagebrush-steppe of the Intermountain West. Invasive species, particularly annual grasses, fuel repeated wildfires that drive previously stable ecological states across thresholds to less desirable states that are highly recalcitrant to restoration efforts. Abiotic changes include altered hydrologic and nutrient cycling, leading to permanent losses of soil organic matter and nitrogen and favoring the invaders. Biotic changes include loss of native flora (particularly the iconic big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata), damaged biological soil crusts, and altered soil microbiota. We argue that adopting 'ecologically appropriate' plant materials that are able to restore some level of ecological functioning and ecosystem services to badly damaged lands, though not necessarily the same genotypes, are advisable when exceptionally difficult altered environments like these are encountered. This approach is admittedly a direct violation of Soule'e third postulate of conservation biology regarding conservation of evolutionary patterns. However, this may be preferable when classical restoration is likely to be futile or a novel ecosystem approach may be more viable, just as best practices when a patient is sick differ from those for healthy patients. We explain why this approach lies within the Leopold tradition of restoration ecology.