• beta diversity;
  • community assembly;
  • community composition;
  • land-use history;
  • prairie restoration;
  • priority effect;
  • species richness;
  • year effect


  1. The outcomes of ecological restoration are notoriously unpredictable, but we have no general predictive understanding of this contingency. Management decisions can have strong effects on restoration outcomes, but in other cases may be overwhelmed by site characteristics (e.g. soil conditions), landscape context (e.g. abundance of similar habitat) or historical factors (e.g. priority effects). However, we generally cannot predict which of these four classes of drivers will affect restoration outcomes. Disparate aspects of restoration outcomes (e.g. species richness, beta diversity and community composition) and their unique responses further complicate our understanding. Finally, these four classes of drivers might differentially affect subsets of the restored community, where, for example, management might shape the abundance and distribution of species of the target community, while other species are more contingent on site, landscape or historical factors.
  2. Here, we used variation partitioning to compare the relative importance of management, site, landscape and historical factors for determining the plant community outcomes of 27 prairie restorations in south-west Michigan.
  3. We found that management, especially the composition, diversity and density of seed mixes applied, and history, especially site age, were the most important drivers of prairie restoration species richness, beta diversity and composition. Site and landscape factors were only rarely important for restoration outcomes.
  4. Finally, we found that comparing the unique responses of sown and non-sown species typically increased our understanding of the dynamics contributing to community-wide restoration outcomes.
  5. Synthesis and applications. This is, to our knowledge, the first quantitative comparison of how four major classes of drivers determine the outcome of restoration. Historical legacies and management decisions, but generally not landscape context or local site conditions, shaped plant communities at restored sites. These findings represent an important step towards developing a more predictive framework for understanding contingency in restoration outcomes.