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Can ecological land classification increase the utility of vegetation monitoring data?

Williamson, Jeb C., Bestelmeyer, Brandon T., McClaran, Mitchel P., Robinett, Dan, Briske, David D., Wu, X. Ben, Fernández-Giménez, Maria E.
Ecological indicators 2016 v.69 pp. 657-666
Eragrostis lehmanniana, Prosopis velutina, canopy, climate, ecosystems, environmental indicators, environmental monitoring, grasses, indicator species, indigenous species, introduced plants, land classification, landscapes, managers, plant communities, range management, rangelands, soil, spatial variation, temporal variation, trees, vegetation, Arizona
Vegetation dynamics in rangelands and other ecosystems are known to be mediated by topoedaphic properties. Vegetation monitoring programs, however, often do not consider the impact of soils and other sources of landscape heterogeneity on the temporal patterns observed. Ecological sites (ES) comprise a land classification system based on soil, topographic, and climate variations that can be readily applied by land managers to classify topoedaphic properties at monitoring locations. We used a long-term (>40y) vegetation record from southeastern Arizona, USA to test the utility of an ES classification for refining interpretations of monitoring data in an area of relatively subtle soil differences. We focused on two phenomena important to rangeland management in the southeastern Arizona region: expansion of the native tree velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina Woot.) and spread of the introduced perennial grass Lehmann lovegrass (Eragrostis lehmanniana Nees). Specifically, we sought to determine if a quantitative, ES-specific analysis of the long-term record would (1) improve detection of changes in plant species having heightened ecological or management importance and (2) further clarify topoedaphic effects on vegetation trajectories. We found that ES class membership was a significant factor explaining spatiotemporal variation in velvet mesquite canopy cover, Lehmann lovegrass basal cover, and Lehmann lovegrass density measurements. In addition, we observed that the potential magnitude of velvet mesquite and Lehmann lovegrass increases varied substantially among ES classes. Our study brings attention to a practical land management tool that might be called upon to increase the effectiveness of vegetation-based indicators of ecosystem change.