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Techniques for restoring damaged Mojave and western Sonoran ecosystems, including those for threatened desert tortoises and Joshua trees

May 1, 2023

Ecological restoration has potential for contributing to conservation activities for threatened Mojave desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii) and Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia, Y. jaegeriana) and their broader ecosystems in the Mojave and western Sonoran deserts. To be effective, restoration actions deployed strategically need to halt and reverse habitat degradation, replenish or enhance resources used by both species (e.g., large shrubs for protection of tortoises and nurse plants facilitating recruitment of Joshua tree seedlings), and ideally foster resilience during likely future environmental changes. We synthesized restoration techniques and their effectiveness in the Mojave and western Sonoran deserts, provide estimated costs of candidate techniques, and anticipate future research needs for effective restoration in changing climates and environments. Over 50 published studies in the Mojave and western Sonoran deserts demonstrate that restoration can improve soil features (e.g., biocrusts), increase cover of native perennial and annual plants, enhance native seed retention and seed banks, and reduce risk of fires to conserve mature shrubland habitat. We placed restoration techniques into three categories: restoration of site environments, revegetation, and management actions to limit further disturbance and encourage recovery. Within these categories, 11 major restoration techniques (and their variations) were evaluated by at least one published study and range from geomorphic (e.g., reestablishing natural topographic patterns) and abiotic structural treatments (e.g., vertical mulching) to active revegetation (e.g., outplanting, seeding). For example, 16 outplanting studies assessed performance of 46 species to begin identifying top-performing species, associated treatments (e.g., protection from herbivory) required to aid outplant survival, and potential for outplants to trigger formation of self-sustaining populations. Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), a shrub that tortoises use for cover and that serves as a nurse plant for Joshua tree recruitment, achieved at least 50% survival in five of eight studies. Estimated costs for restoring desert habitats varied primarily with the severity of the disturbance, site factors including the diversity of vegetation that was lost, logistical factors such as accessibility of sites (influencing transportation costs), and the cost-effectiveness of the restoration techniques chosen. The review highlights six major research and adaptive management needs for advancing desert habitat restoration. These needs include: 1) continued development of innovative techniques and bet-hedging approaches to provide managers with “tool boxes” of candidate treatments to deploy in dynamic environmental and management conditions, 2) identifying how to optimize spatial deployment of limited restoration resources, 3) developing practical techniques for reducing non-native annual grasses across spatial scales, 4) improving linkages between habitat enhancements and short- and long-term indicators of tortoise usage and responses and Joshua tree population sustainability, 5) mitigating multiple, interacting stressors with cumulative impacts, and 6) integrating biotic (e.g., seeding) and abiotic (e.g., fencing, shade structures) treatments to complement each other at site and landscape scales in dynamic climates and environments. It is possible that bet-hedging approaches employing multiple treatment types (or phased treatments across years) and greater incorporation of abiotic treatments, which are less sensitive to timing of precipitation compared with biotic treatments, will become increasingly important under future climates projected to be drier and more variable. Existing research suggests that restoration can be deployed effectively even under adverse climatic conditions, but success requires identifying suitable techniques tailored to dynamic environments.

Publication Year 2023
Title Techniques for restoring damaged Mojave and western Sonoran ecosystems, including those for threatened desert tortoises and Joshua trees
Authors Scott R Abella, Kristin H. Berry, Stefanie Ferrazzano
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Desert Plants
Index ID 70243352
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center