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Ecological potential fractional component cover based on Long-Term satellite observations across the western United States

December 8, 2021

Rangelands have immense inherent spatial and temporal variability, yet land condition and trends are often assessed at a limited number of spatially “representative” points. Spatially comprehensive, and quantitative, Ecological Potential (EP) data provide a baseline for comparison to current rangeland vegetation conditions and trends. Here, we define EP as potential fractional cover (bare ground, herbaceous, litter, shrub, and sagebrush) represented in the least disturbed areas and most productive years of the Landsat satellite archive (1985-present) for each 30-m pixel. We produce EP maps across rangelands in the western United States by training regression tree models using Rangeland Condition Monitoring Assessment and Projection (RCMAP) time-series fractional cover maps in ecologically intact sites (with limited annual herbaceous cover, no recent disturbance or vegetation treatment, and less bare ground cover than expected). As independent predictor variables in these models, we use digital soils and topography data and six bimonthly composites of the 90th percentile of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and associated spectral bands from the 1985–2020 Landsat archive. EP predictions were successful in capturing biophysical gradients present in the independent variables and depicting potential cover in the absence of disturbance; we found no influence of fires or land treatments in the data. Next, we compared EP to contemporary (2018) cover, to create departure maps that can be used as a screening tool indicating degradation and providing an early warning of vegetation state change. Finally, we used a dichotomous key to convert the 1985 and 2018 RCMAP cover and EP cover into vegetation states important to land management decisions (invaded sagebrush steppe, annual grasslands, etc.). We found that in 1985, 21.2% of the study area had a different vegetation state than EP, and this percentage increased to 24.2% by 2018. More than 50% of the EP native sagebrush steppe was converted to an annual grassland, perennial grassland, or non-sagebrush shrub by 2018, and an additional 7% was classified as invaded sagebrush steppe, at risk of transition to another state. EP products provide a spatio-temporal reference of vegetation conditions from the last three decades across rangelands in the western United States. Use of the EP reference can improve adaptive management practice by providing monitoring and control data, which are often lacking, and assist in differentiating treatment effect from confounding factors.

Publication Year 2021
Title Ecological potential fractional component cover based on Long-Term satellite observations across the western United States
DOI 10.1016/j.ecolind.2021.108447
Authors Matthew B. Rigge, Deb Meyer, Brett Bunde
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecological Indicators
Index ID 70229538
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center