The population biology of Bromus tectorum in forests: effect of disturbance, grazing, and litter on seedling establishment and reproduction

Summary

The effect of tree canopy, understory, herbivores, and litter depth on seedling establishment, survival, and reproduction of the alien grass, Bromus tectorum (cheatgrass), was examined in a series of experiments in four forest habitat types in western North America. Higher recruitment, survival, and reproduction on clearcuts, which would be expected if the overstory alone is limiting the distribution of cheatgrass in forests, were not observed. Removing the understory in an otherwise undisturbed Pinus ponderosa forest did, however, increase the emergence of B. tectorum, but plants in these experimentally-created openings were more vulnerable to grazing by small mammals. In contrast, removing the sparse understory in an Abies forest neither enhanced recruitment nor increased the incidence of grazing of B. tectorum seedlings. Regardless of the forest habitat, most grazed plants died before maturity; even fewer grazed plants produced seeds. Litter depth influenced both recruitment and biomass production: both the rate of germination and the size of resultant seedlings were lower on thick litter (6 cm) compared to results on thin litter (1.5 cm). In the more open Pinus ponderosa and Pseudotsuga menziesii forests, cheatgrass colonization may often occur in openings in the understory alone. Colonization in the more shady A. grandis and Thuja plicata forests is unlikely, however, unless the opening extends through both the understory and the overstory. As a result, cheatgrass is unlikely to increase in any of these forests unless the scale and incidence of disturbance increases substantially.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth A. Pierson.

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Pierson, E.A., Mack, R.N. The population biology of Bromus tectorum in forests: effect of disturbance, grazing, and litter on seedling establishment and reproduction. Oecologia 84, 526–533 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00328170

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Key words

  • Bromus tectorum
  • Litter
  • Grazing
  • Forest disturbance
  • Herbivory