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Woody plant encroachment of grassland and the reversibility of shrub dominance: Erosion, fire, and feedback processes

March 8, 2022

Many grass-dominated ecosystems in dryland regions have experienced increasing woody plant density and abundance during the past century. In many cases, this process has led to land degradation and declines in ecosystem functions. An example is the Chihuahuan Desert in the southwestern United States, which experienced different stages of shrub encroachment in the past 150 years. Among a wide variety of mechanisms to explain the grass–shrub transitions in this dryland system, soil erosion (both wind and water) and fire are particularly well studied. Here, we synthesize recent developments on the drivers and feedback in the process of shrub encroachment in the Chihuahuan Desert through the intercomparison of two Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites, namely Jornada and Sevilleta. Experimental and modeling studies support a conceptual framework, which underscores the important roles of erosion and fire in woody plant encroachment. Collectively, research at the Jornada LTER provided complementary, quantitative support to the well-known fertile-islands framework. Studies at the Sevilleta LTER expanded the framework, adding fire as a major disturbance to woody plants. Conceptual models derived from the synthesis represent the general understanding of shrub encroachment that emerged from research at these two sites, and can guide management interventions aimed at reducing or mitigating undesirable ecosystem state change in many other drylands worldwide.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Woody plant encroachment of grassland and the reversibility of shrub dominance: Erosion, fire, and feedback processes
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.3949
Authors Junran Li, Sujith Ravi, Guan Wang, R. Scott Van Pelt, Thomas E. Gill, Joel B. Sankey
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70232206
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Southwest Biological Science Center