• Plant community response following removal of Juniperus virginiana from tallgrass prairie: Testing for restoration limitations

      Limb, R. F.; Engle, D. M.; Alford, A. L.; Hellgren, E. C. (Society for Range Management, 2014-07)
      Woody plant encroachment in natural grasslands is a widely documented global phenomenon that alters ecosystem dynamics by altering historic vegetation composition and suppressing herbaceous productivity. Abundant woody plants often suppress native plants sufficiently to establish successional thresholds difficult to reverse without species augmentation. Juniper (Juniperus virginiana L.) is expanding in North American tallgrass prairie, but it is currently unknown if encroachment creates successional restrictions that limit restoration potential. We selected 16 50×50-m sites with juniper canopy cover ranging from zero to approximately 75% in tallgrass prairie near Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA. Juniper trees were removed from 7 of the sites along the gradient of juniper canopy cover. Canopy cover of plant species and herbaceous plant productivity were estimated at each site 1 year before and 1, 2, and 5 years after tree removal. Before trees were removed, plant species richness and productivity declined as juniper canopy cover increased, and plant community composition dissimilarity of reference sites increased as juniper canopy cover increased. These relationships remained consistent on all non-removal sites throughout the study. The first year after juniper removal, species richness increased on all removal sites compared to intact sites and productivity on removal sites increased two years after removal. Plant community dissimilarity between reference sites and juniper removal sites remained relatively high (30-60%) the first two years after tree removal on all removal sites, but dissimilarity was about 22% 5 years after juniper removal. Within 5 years, removal sites were comparable to reference plant communities. Grassland restoration frequently requires species manipulation and additional seeding, particularly when overcoming successional limitations. Juniper encroachment into tallgrass prairie alters plant community species composition and productivity. However, in our study, juniper associated succession limitations were not apparent, and complete autogenic restoration was achieved within 5 years without seeding or species manipulation. © 2014 The Society for Range Management.