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September 26, 2023

In a rare, never-grazed, and undisturbed grassland in the southwest US, researchers conducted a multi-decadal study to assess how a protected ecosystem is faring under warming temperatures and the invasion of a non-native exotic grass.

Person taking data in grassland with biocrust
Data collection in a healthy dryland grassland with dark biocrusts between bunchgrasses and cacti in Utah. 

Widespread disturbance and invasive species in the western US, along with long-term drought, have impacted and altered plant communities. To isolate ecosystem responses to climate change and non-native plant invasion without the impacts of livestock, researchers from the USGS, National Park Service, and collaborating agencies analyzed 24 years of plant cover monitoring from a never-grazed protected semi-arid grassland in Canyonlands National Park with patchy invasion by Bromus tectorum, a non-native grass discovered at the site in 1994.

Researchers compared their findings to surveys done in 1967 to assess ecosystem resilience to warming temperatures, drought, and invasive grass. They found that the native plant community was surprisingly resistant to a warmer, drier climate, with plant cover similar to that in 1967. The lack of disturbance to soils, biocrusts, and existing native plant cover constrained the growth and spread of the non-native grass.

Funding for this project is provided by the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area and USGS Climate Research and Development Program.

Cheatgrass on a frosty morning
Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) on a frosty morning. Cheatgrass is a non-native, highly invasive grass species. Photo by Steve Hanser, USGS.


Read the paper:

Duniway, M.C., Finger-Higgens, R., Geiger, E.L., Hoover, D.L., Pfennigwerth, A.A., Knight, A.C., Van Scoyoc, M., Miller, M., and Belnap, J., 2023, Ecosystem resilience to invasion and drought—Insights after 24 years in a rare never-grazed grassland: Global Change Biology, v.29, no. 20, p. 5866-5880,

Associated data:

Finger-Higgens, R., Geiger, E.L., Duniway, M.C., and Belnap, J., 2023, Biocrust cover, vegetation, and climate data from a protected grassland within Canyonlands National Park, Utah (ver. 2.0, Sept. 2023): U.S. Geological Survey data release,




Biocrusts with lichen
Mature biocrust with lichen. Photo taken by SBSC during surveys, courtesy of Erika Geiger, USBS, SBSC.
Seedling germination in biocrust, Utah
Biocrusts create a protective surface that retain soil moisture and protect seeds, facilitating seedling germination and survival. Photo courtesy of Erika Geiger, SBSC, USGS.
Photograph of biological soil crusts (biocrusts) taken during a UAS mission in Utah
Please don’t walk on the biocrust! A photo of biological soil crusts (biocrusts) taken by Lance Brady (NUSO) during a cooperative USGS NUSO, USGS Canyonlands Research Center, USGS Western Geographic Science Center, and the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment biocrust remote sensing and field data project near Moab, Utah.  Biocrusts are made up of organisms that help with maintaining soil moisture and providing for soil stability. Biocrusts are common in arid landscapes and are very fragile needing numerous years to recover after they are disturbed.

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