Vegetation dynamics on rangelands: a critique of the current paradigms


D.D. Briske, Department of Rangeland Ecology and Management, Texas A&M University, 2126 TAMU, College Station TX 77843, USA (fax +979 845 6430; e-mail


  • 1Rangeland ecologists have been debating the validity of two current paradigms for the evaluation of vegetation dynamics on rangelands. This debate frequently contrasts the conventional model of continuous and reversible vegetation dynamics (range model) with a more contemporary model that can accommodate discontinuous and non-reversible vegetation change (state-and-transition model).
  • 2The range and the state-and-transition models are conceptually related to the equilibrium and non-equilibrium paradigms within ecology, respectively. The methodological dichotomy that has developed between the range and the state-and-transition models has fostered the perception that these two ecological paradigms are mutually exclusive. We challenge this perception and contend that both methodologies and their corresponding paradigms are non-exclusive.
  • 3Equilibrium and non-equilibrium ecosystems are not distinguished on the basis of unique processes or functions, but rather by the evaluation of system dynamics at various temporal and spatial scales. Consequently, ecosystems may express both equilibrium and non-equilibrium dynamics. This confirms early interpretations that ecosystems are distributed along a continuum from equilibrium to non-equilibrium states.
  • 4Although both equilibrium and non-equilibrium dynamics occur in numerous ecosystems, the empirical evidence is frequently confounded by (i) uncertainty regarding the appropriate evidence necessary to distinguish between paradigms; (ii) disproportionate responses among vegetation attributes to climate and grazing; (iii) comparisons among systems with varying degrees of managerial involvement; and (iv) the evaluation of vegetation dynamics at various spatial and temporal scales.
  • 5Synthesis and applications. This critique supports the conclusion that a paradigm shift has not taken place in rangeland ecology, but rather, the debate has forced a more comprehensive interpretation of vegetation dynamics along the entirety of the equilibrium–non-equilibrium continuum. Therefore, the rangeland debate should be redirected from the dichotomy between paradigms to one of paradigm integration.