Integrated monitoring and seed testing to improve restoration outcomes on the Colorado Plateau
Northern Arizona University published an article that referenced SBSC’s Restoration Assessment & Monitoring Program for the Southwest (RAMPS) program. RAMPS is a program that scientifically tests and explores restoration approaches in the arid Southwest.
The Northern Arizona University (NAU) article focuses on the research of a RAMPS partner, Brad Butterfield from NAU’s Merriam-Powell Center for Environmental Research. RAMPS is a collaborative program between the SBSC, other USGS Science Centers, BLM, NPS, USFWS, NAU, and other universities that aims to strengthen restoration strategies and outcomes in the hot and dry American Southwest. The use of a network of experimental restoration plots, studying native plant response to rainfall, understanding the effects of land treatment practices, testing the utility of connectivity modifiers, and understanding the effects of drought and climate change are some of the avenues of research contributing to RAMPS.
NAU’s article is title, “Integrated monitoring and seed testing to improve restoration outcomes on the Colorado Plateau”, and can be found here: http://news.nau.edu/butterfield/#.WZ2yhyiGOUl. More information on RAMPS can be found here: https://www.usgs.gov/centers/sbsc/science/restoration-assessment-monitoring-program-southwest-ramps-0?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects.
Recovery from disturbance represents a substantial challenge to agencies that manage large tracts of land in the Southwest. Despite the demand for restoration and rehabilitation, little information is available to help managers effectively reestablish native perennial vegetation and stabilize soils, especially given changing climate and disturbance regimes.
Forestry and agriculture have finely tuned their planting practices through the use of distributed networks of field trial, or “provenance” experiments. Ecological restoration outcomes could similarly be improved by adopting a field trial approach in which plots of different species and seed sources are established in monocultures and mixes, in combination with methods to improve their establishment, using a replicated, standardized approach within and across water-limited ecoregions.
In the southwest US, monsoon precipitation increases sharply along a northwest to southeast gradient. Pleuraphis jamesii or galleta grass, is an important C4 grass species that spans across this large range in precipitation pattern. In this study we are assessing the ability of galleta grass to adapt to changes in the seasonality of rainfall (termed “plasticity”). In the fall of 2014, we transplanted four populations of galleta grass to a common garden field trial at the Canyonlands Research Center and allowed them to establish for one year. In 2016, we began applying three precipitation seasonality treatments to the populations: spring only, monsoon only and spring and monsoon. We are examining the phenological, ecophysiological and morphological responses to assess plasticity.
Historic over-grazing of arid grasslands in the Intermountain West has led to widespread soil erosion, loss of plant diversity, and invasion by exotic species. Degraded grassland conditions can be very persistent, even after livestock use has ceased. For example, in national parks on the Colorado Plateau, livestock have been excluded for decades, but soil and native plants have not recovered on their own in many instances. Recent droughts and forecasts for more frequent and severe droughts in makes natural recovery of these important ecosystems even less likely. Unfortunately, many traditional methods of restoration have only marginal success rates and risk increasing soil erosion.
Our project investigates a novel restoration method that uses connectivity modifiers (ConMods). These are small fencing structures that “modify” large connected patches bare ground by impeding wind and water erosion, creating microsites favorable to seedling establishment. In a recent field trial, ConMods resulted in a 90% establishment rate of seeded native plants. We are currently looking at various installation patterns of ConMods, to inform and optimize restoration of degraded arid grasslands.
Land managers face tremendous challenges in the future as drought and climate change alter the abundance, distribution, and interactions of plant species. These challenges will be especially daunting in the southwestern US, which is already experiencing elevated temperatures and prolonged droughts, resulting in reduced soil moisture in an already water-limited environment. These changes will negatively affect plant growth and may result in shifts of plant community composition and ecosystem function. The broad-scale effects of climate change and complex spatial heterogeneity of abiotic and biotic conditions across the southwestern U.S. makes it difficult to use site-specific data to assess climate-plant relationships. We are conducting regional cross-site analysis to identify at risk plant species, functional types, and plant communities that can help managers mitigate and adapt to shifts in plant community composition, distinguish changes due to climate versus land use, and construct future conservation policies.
In drylands, chronic reductions in water availability (press-drought) through reduced precipitation and increased temperatures may have profound ecosystem effects, depending on the sensitivities of the dominant plants and plant functional types. In this study, we are examining the impacts of moderate, but long-term chronic drought using a network of 40 drought shelters on the Colorado Plateau. This experiment was established in 2010 over a wide range of plant communities and soil types. We are focusing on four key plant functional types (including cool season (C3) and warm season (C4) plants) that are expected to differ in their drought sensitivities: C3 grasses, C4 grasses, C3 shrubs and C4 shrubs. After four years of the experimental treatments, we observed high mortality of the C3 grasses due to the combination of the experimental press-drought and a naturally occurring pulse-drought. In addition, there were moderate reductions in the C4 grasses and shrubs, while the C3 shrubs remained unchanged.
In drylands, short-term extreme droughts can have profound ecosystem effects, depending on the timing (seasonality) of drought and the sensitivities of the dominant plants and plant functional types. Past work suggests that cool season drought may disproportionately impact regionally important grass and shrub species. In this study, we are examining the impacts of extreme seasonal drought on grassland communities of the Colorado Plateau. This experiment was established in 2015 at one large site near Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah. We are focusing on the impacts of extreme (a 66% reduction in precipitation) warm and cool season drought on grass and mixed grass-shrub communities using large, moveable passive rainfall reduction shelters. This ongoing experiment is part of a larger network imposing extreme drought in grasslands globally (http://edge.biology.colostate.edu/).
Mike Duniway and Becky Mann were interviewed by KZMU, a community radio station located in Moab, UT. They discussed a strategy that uses 6" tall structures to provide safe places for native plant seed germination and seedling survival, and should benefit restoration efforts in water-limited systems.
A video put out by CBS discusses some of the ecological issues of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in UT such as nonnative annual grasses, disturbance caused by cattle grazing, and the difficulty of getting native, perennial grasses established. The video focuses on the research of SBSC’s Rebecca Mann and Mike Duniway, who are studying the use connectivity modifiers (ConMods) in restoration.