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Spatial patterns of woody plant encroachment in a temperate grassland

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Abstract

Context

Woody encroachment is the process whereby grasslands transition to a woody-dominated state. This process is a global driver of grassland decline and is ultimately the outcome of increased woody plant recruitment in grasslands. Yet, little is known about how recruitment distances structure spatial patterns of encroachment.

Objectives

Here, we develop a recruitment curve to describe the scatter of woody plant recruitment around seed sources and examine how this structures spatial patterns of encroachment.

Methods

We developed a recruitment curve for Juniperus virginiana using an encroachment dataset that captures spread from tree plantings into treeless grassland sites in the Nebraska Sandhills (USA). In addition, we used height classes of encroaching J. virginiana as subsequent time steps of an encroachment process to examine how the leading edge of encroachment expanded over time.

Results

The recruitment curve was characterized by a fat-tailed distribution. Most recruitment occurred locally, within 157 m of seed sources (95th percentile distance), while, sparse long-distance recruitment characterized the curve’s tail. Expansion of the leading edge of encroachment was characterized by two features: (1) a slow moving, high density area near tree plantings and (2) rapid expansion of the distribution’s tail, driven by long-distance recruitment in treeless areas.

Conclusion

Our results show a high capacity for woody plant invasion of grasslands. Local recruitment drives transitions to woody dominance, while long-distance recruitment generates a rapidly advancing leading edge. Plans to conserve and restore grasslands will require spatially informed strategies that account for local and long-distance recruitment of woody plants.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

The Nebraska Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit is jointly supported by a cooperative agreement between the United States Geological Survey, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wildlife Management Institute. We are grateful to G. Wright, J. Bain, and T. Teahon for their assistance with fieldwork planning and logistics.

Funding

Funding for this research was provided by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission [W-125-R-1], the University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Arthur W. Sampson Fellowship Fund (University of Nebraska-Lincoln).

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DTF, RBP and DT: conceptualized and designed the research. DTF and RBP: performed fieldwork. DTF and RBP: conducted data analyses. DTF and RBP: wrote the paper and all authors critically reviewed/revised the manuscript and agreed on the submission.

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Correspondence to Dillon T. Fogarty.

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Fogarty, D.T., Peterson, R.B. & Twidwell, D. Spatial patterns of woody plant encroachment in a temperate grassland. Landsc Ecol 37, 2835–2846 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10980-022-01511-y

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