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Cross-scale analysis reveals interacting predictors of annual and perennial cover in Northern Great Basin rangelands

April 1, 2024

Exotic annual grass invasion is a widespread threat to the integrity of sagebrush ecosystems in Western North America. Although many predictors of annual grass prevalence and native perennial vegetation have been identified, there remains substantial uncertainty about how regional-scale and local-scale predictors interact to determine vegetation heterogeneity, and how associations between vegetation and cattle grazing vary with environmental context. Here, we conducted a regionally extensive, one-season field survey across burned and unburned, grazed, public lands in Oregon and Idaho, with plots stratified by aspect and distance to water within pastures to capture variation in environmental context and grazing intensity. We analyzed regional-scale and local-scale patterns of annual grass, perennial grass, and shrub cover, and examined to what extent plot-level variation was contingent on pasture-level predictions of site favorability. Annual grasses were widespread at burned and unburned sites alike, contrary to assumptions of annual grasses depending on fire, and more common at lower elevations and higher temperatures regionally, as well as on warmer slopes locally. Pasture-level grazing pressure interacted with temperature such that annual grass cover was associated positively with grazing pressure at higher temperatures but associated negatively with grazing pressure at lower temperatures. This suggests that pasture-level temperature and grazing relationships with annual grass abundance are complex and context dependent, although the causality of this relationship deserves further examination. At the plot-level within pastures, annual grass cover did not vary with grazing metrics, but perennial cover did; perennial grasses, for example, had lower cover closer to water sources, but higher cover at higher dung counts within a pasture, suggesting contrasting interpretations of these two grazing proxies. Importantly for predictions of ecosystem response to temperature change, we found that pasture-level and plot-level favorability interacted: perennial grasses had a higher plot-level cover on cooler slopes, and this difference across topography was starkest in pastures that were less favorable for perennial grasses regionally. Understanding the mechanisms behind cross-scale interactions and contingent responses of vegetation to grazing in these increasingly invaded ecosystems will be critical to land management in a changing world.

Publication Year 2024
Title Cross-scale analysis reveals interacting predictors of annual and perennial cover in Northern Great Basin rangelands
DOI 10.1002/eap.2953
Authors Madelon Florence Case, Kirk W. Davies, Chad S. Boyd, Lina Aoyama, Joanna Merson, Calvin Penkauskas, Lauren M. Hallett
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Applications
Index ID 70252917
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center