U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Dot gov

Official websites use .gov
A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.


Secure .gov websites use HTTPS
A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.


Main content area

A test of critical thresholds and their indicators in a desertification-prone ecosystem: more resilience than we thought

Brandon T. Bestelmeyer, Michael C. Duniway, Darren K. James, Laura M. Burkett, Kris M. Havstad
Ecology letters 2013 v.16 no. pp. 339-345
desertification, grasses, shrubs, arid lands, models, vegetation cover, grazing intensity, plant competition, ecosystems, grasslands, Chihuahuan Desert
Theoretical models predict that drylands can cross critical thresholds, but experimental manipulations to evaluate them are non-existent. We used a long-term (13-year) pulse-perturbation experiment featuring heavy grazing and shrub removal to determine if critical thresholds and their determinants can be demonstrated in Chihuahuan Desert grasslands. We asked if cover values or patch-size metrics could predict vegetation recovery, supporting their use as early-warning indicators. We found that season of grazing, but not the presence of competing shrubs, mediated the severity of grazing impacts on dominant grasses. Recovery occurred at the same rate irrespective of grazing history, suggesting that critical thresholds were not crossed, even at low cover levels. Grass cover, but not patch size metrics, predicted variation in recovery rates. Some transition-prone ecosystems are surprisingly resilient; management of grazing impacts and simple cover measurements can be used to avert undesired transitions and initiate restoration.