Landscape Ecology

, Volume 31, Issue 10, pp 2433–2444 | Cite as

Deciphering rangeland transformation—complex dynamics obscure interpretations of woody plant encroachment

  • Matthew D. Berg
  • Bradford P. Wilcox
  • Jay P. Angerer
  • Edward C. Rhodes
  • William E. Fox
Research Article

Abstract

Context

Woody plant encroachment—the conversion of grasslands to woodlands—is among the greatest challenges faced by rangelands worldwide. Yet this phenomenon is poorly understood, and complex land use dynamics make interpreting the timing and extent of land cover changes a global challenge.

Objectives

For many regions, the true degree and rate of historical change in woody cover and cropland remain unknown. We quantify these processes and explore the effects of prior cultivation on woody plant distribution.

Methods

In the Lampasas Cut Plain, USA, we measured rangeland transformation using digital classification of aerial imagery 1937–2012. Our study is the first to use data of such high spatial and temporal resolution to address this question at this scale. We also provide some of the first documentation of dramatic regional cropland abandonment.

Results

Although total woody cover remained almost unchanged (1937: 28%, 2012: 27 %), woody cover underwent a major redistribution across the landscape. Formerly open areas attained much greater levels of woody cover, and previously wooded areas lost woody cover. As cropland area declined by 78 %, woody plants invaded former croplands more slowly than the rangeland portions of the area (0.1 % year−1 vs. 0.3 % year−1, respectively).

Conclusions

These findings conflict with widely held assumptions and suggest that woody plant encroachment is more nuanced than often recognized. Multiple dynamics and past conditions interact in complex ways to produce landscape change. Because perceptions of encroachment determine how we respond to this challenge, great care should be taken in interpreting observed woody plant encroachment of the world’s rangelands.

Keywords

Cropland abandonment Ecological invasion Great Plains Historical imagery Juniper Land cover Land use Remote sensing Shrubs Succession trajectories 

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthew D. Berg
    • 1
    • 3
  • Bradford P. Wilcox
    • 1
  • Jay P. Angerer
    • 1
    • 2
  • Edward C. Rhodes
    • 2
  • William E. Fox
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Ecosystem Science and ManagementTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  2. 2.Texas A&M AgriLife Blackland Research and Extension CenterTempleUSA
  3. 3.Artesian InsightsHoustonUSA

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