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Arid old-field restoration: Native perennial grasses suppress weeds and erosion, but also suppress native shrubs

Porensky, Lauren M., Leger, Elizabeth A., Davison, Jay, Miller, W. Wally, Goergen, Erin M., Espeland, Erin K., Carroll-Moore, Erin M.
Agriculture, ecosystems & environment 2014 v.184 pp. 135
abandoned land, agricultural land, annuals, arid zones, biodiversity, biomass, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, ecosystems, grasses, habitats, herbaceous plants, indigenous species, invasive species, irrigation, land restoration, perennials, plant density, plant establishment, shrubs, soil stabilization, sowing, water stress, weeds, wildlife, wind erosion, Great Basin States, North America
Rates of cropland abandonment in arid regions are increasing, and abandoned fields in such regions can have low levels of ecosystem function and biodiversity. Long-lived, drought-tolerant shrubs are dominant components of many arid ecosystems, providing multiple ecosystem services such as soil stabilization, herbaceous plant facilitation, carbon storage and wildlife habitat. On abandoned agricultural fields, shrub restoration is hindered by multiple challenges, including erosion, water stress and invasive species. We hypothesized that applying short-term irrigation and seeding native perennial grasses would facilitate native shrub establishment by reducing erosion and weed abundance. Using a blocked split-plot design, we evaluated the separate and combined impacts of short-term irrigation and perennial grass seeding on five-year restoration outcomes (including direct measurements of wind erosion) at two former agricultural fields in North America's arid Great Basin. After two years, irrigation had increased the density and biomass of seeded grasses by more than ten-fold. The combination of irrigation and seeded grasses was associated with significantly lower wind erosion, weed density and weed biomass. Three years after irrigation ended, seeded grasses remained significantly more abundant in formerly irrigated than non-irrigated plots. Formerly irrigated plots also had significantly less bare ground, annual plant cover and weed biomass than non-irrigated plots. Large plant-canopy gaps were fewer in irrigated and seeded plots. Although seeded grasses reduced erosion and invasion, they failed to facilitate native shrub establishment. Shrub cover and density were highest in plots that had been drill-seeded and irrigated, but lacked perennial grasses. Our results indicate that short-term irrigation has persistent restoration benefits, and that a tradeoff exists between the benefits and costs of seeding perennial grasses into degraded arid shrubland sites.