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ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Burns, Oregon » Range and Meadow Forage Management Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #392697

Research Project: Restoration and Conservation of Great Basin Ecosystems

Location: Range and Meadow Forage Management Research

Title: What does it take to restore mesic grasslands from woody encroachment?

item O'Connor, Rory
item WEDEL, EMILY - Kansas State University
item NIPPERT, JESSE - Kansas State University
item WILCOX, KEVIN - University Of Wyoming
item KOMATSU, KIMBERLY - Smithsonian Institute
item AVOLIO, MEGHAN - Johns Hopkins University

Submitted to: Ecological Society of America Abstracts
Publication Type: Abstract Only
Publication Acceptance Date: 3/17/2022
Publication Date: 8/16/2022
Citation: O'Connor, R.C., Wedel, E., Nippert, J.B., Wilcox, K., Komatsu, K., Avolio, M. 2022. What does it take to restore mesic grasslands from woody encroachment? [abstract]. Ecological Society of America. Paper No. 1149082.

Interpretive Summary: Woody plants are expanding their range into mesic grasslands in North America, and prescribed fires are no longer a viable treatment when resprouting woody plants are present. We wanted to know what if a single cutting and mowing treatment followed by restarting the annual fire cycle would be effective at reducing non-resprouting and resprouting woody plants. We found that non-resprouting and tree species did not come back into the watershed following the cutting and prescribed annual fire, whereas resprouting shrub species came back and increased in density. There needs to be consistent within growing season woody plant reduction treatments as well as annual fire to control and reduce the expansion of all woody plants in mesic grasslands of North America.

Technical Abstract: Woody plants are increasing in cover and abundance in many grasslands globally. In North American mesic grasslands, fire is a major local driver, however past research has shown that it is no longer a viable tool for restoration in of itself where resprouting woody plants are present. To determine what other restoration treatments are possible in conjunction with fire we asked whether cutting and mowing of trees and shrubs in a mesic grassland followed by a restart of annual spring burns could reduce the overall impact of woody plant expansion. To answer our question, we setup a case study within an 83-Ha watershed at the Konza Prairie Biological Station that recently had trees cut (herbicide added to stumps), and shrubs mowed (no herbicide) where we monitored the plant community over several years following woody plant removal. Additionally, one year after the cutting and mowing treatments were applied fire was re-established as an annual burn. We used a series of 100-m transect lines at different topographic positions (upland, slope, lowland) to determine plant community change from these restoration treatments. We found that after cutting, mowing, and burning treatments were implemented together, there was a 62% reduction in tree species abundance but a 12% increase in shrub abundance overall after three years. When we look at how trees and shrubs responded based on topography, we found that tree species abundances were reduced on all topographic positions while shrub species became the dominant functional group on the landscape, regardless of topographic position. Resprouting shrub species became most dominant in the uplands, including Zanthoxylum americanum, Ceanothus americanus, and Rhus glabra. On slopes, we saw large increases in abundances for nearly all (10 of the 11) documented shrub species. However, lowlands had the largest increase of shrub abundances overall, with Rhus aromatica, Symphoricarpos orbiculatus, Prunus americana, and Amorpha canescens being the dominant species. Cutting, mowing, and restarting of the fire cycle may work well as a restoration method to remove trees and non-resprouting species, but resprouters likely require additional, more frequent management treatments. There needs to be consistent inter- and intra-seasonal management of woody plant species to adequately reduce their presence.