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Simulated big sagebrush regeneration supports predicted changes at the trailing and leading edges of distribution shifts

January 22, 2015

Many semi-arid plant communities in western North America are dominated by big sagebrush. These ecosystems are being reduced in extent and quality due to economic development, invasive species, and climate change. These pervasive modifications have generated concern about the long-term viability of sagebrush habitat and sagebrush-obligate wildlife species (notably greater sage-grouse), highlighting the need for better understanding of the future big sagebrush distribution, particularly at the species' range margins. These leading and trailing edges of potential climate-driven sagebrush distribution shifts are likely to be areas most sensitive to climate change. We used a process-based regeneration model for big sagebrush, which simulates potential germination and seedling survival in response to climatic and edaphic conditions and tested expectations about current and future regeneration responses at trailing and leading edges that were previously identified using traditional species distribution models. Our results confirmed expectations of increased probability of regeneration at the leading edge and decreased probability of regeneration at the trailing edge below current levels. Our simulations indicated that soil water dynamics at the leading edge became more similar to the typical seasonal ecohydrological conditions observed within the current range of big sagebrush ecosystems. At the trailing edge, an increased winter and spring dryness represented a departure from conditions typically supportive of big sagebrush. Our results highlighted that minimum and maximum daily temperatures as well as soil water recharge and summer dry periods are important constraints for big sagebrush regeneration. Overall, our results confirmed previous predictions, i.e., we see consistent changes in areas identified as trailing and leading edges; however, we also identified potential local refugia within the trailing edge, mostly at sites at higher elevation. Decreasing regeneration probability at the trailing edge underscores the Schlaepfer et al. Future regeneration potential of big sagebrush potential futility of efforts to preserve and/or restore big sagebrush in these areas. Conversely, increasing regeneration probability at the leading edge suggest a growing potential for conflicts in management goals between maintaining existing grasslands by preventing sagebrush expansion versus accepting a shift in plant community composition to sagebrush dominance.

Publication Year 2015
Title Simulated big sagebrush regeneration supports predicted changes at the trailing and leading edges of distribution shifts
DOI 10.1890/ES14-00208.1
Authors Daniel R. Schlaepfer, Kyle A. Taylor, Victoria E. Pennington, Kellen N. Nelson, Trace E. Martin, Caitlin M. Rottler, William K. Lauenroth, John B. Bradford
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70138821
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center