Legacy effects of no-analogue disturbances alter plant community diversity and composition in semi-arid sagebrush steppe

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Abstract

Questions:

(i) What role does the type of managed disturbance play in structuring sagebrush steppe plant communities? (ii) How does the composition of post-disturbance plant communities change with time since disturbance? (iii) Does plant community diversity change over time following managed disturbance?

Location:

Field study within the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. Rich County, Utah, USA.

Methods:

We developed a chronosequence spanning up to 50 yrs post-treatment to study sagebrush steppe vegetation dynamics. Direct ordination was used to examine plant community composition by managed disturbance type and time since disturbance, and factorial analysis of covariance was used to examine diversity dynamics following disturbance. Indicator species values were calculated in order to identify characteristic species for each disturbance type.

Results:

Plant communities experienced a shift toward distinct community composition for each of the three managed disturbance types, and gave no indication of returning to untreated community composition or diversity. Small post-disturbance increases in the number of non-native grass species were observed in the treatments relative to reference, with native forb species making the largest contribution to altered composition. On fire- and chemically-treated sites the proportional native forb species richness increased over time since disturbance, while the proportional contribution of non-native forbs to total species richness decreased. For all three treatment types, native grasses contributed less on average to total richness than on reference sites, while non-native grasses made up a higher proportion of total richness.

Conclusions:

Common shrubland management techniques have legacy effects on the composition and diversity of sagebrush steppe plant communities, and no-analogue disturbances, such as chemical or mechanical treatments, have more pronounced legacy effects than treatments similar to natural disturbance regimes (fire). This study informs a broader understanding of how management actions affect natural systems by highlighting the importance of long-term management legacies as drivers of plant community structure and function.

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