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Keywords:

  • boreal forest;
  • community ecology;
  • oil sands;
  • ordination;
  • reclamation;
  • salinity

Abstract

Reclaimed landscapes after oil sands mining have saline soils; yet, they are required to have similar biodiversity and productivity as the predisturbance nonsaline landscape. Given that many species in the boreal forest are not tolerant of salinity, we studied the effects of soil salinity on plant communities in natural saline landscapes to understand potential plant responses during the reclamation process. Vegetation–soil relationships were measured along transects from flooded wetlands to upland forest vegetation in strongly saline, slightly saline, nonsaline, and reclaimed boreal landscapes. In strongly saline landscapes, surface soil salinity was high (>10 dS/m) in flooded, wet-meadow, and dry-meadow vegetation zones as compared to slightly saline (<5 dS/m) and nonsaline (<2 dS/m) landscapes. Plant communities in these vegetation zones were quite different from nonsaline boreal landscapes and were dominated by halophytes common to saline habitats of the Great Plains. In the shrub and forest vegetation zones, surface soil salinity was similar between saline and nonsaline landscapes, resulting in similar plant communities. In strongly saline landscapes, soils remained saline at depth through the shrub and forest vegetation zones (>10 dS/m), suggesting that forest vegetation can establish over saline soils as long as the salts are below the rooting zone. The reclaimed landscape was intermediate between slightly saline and nonsaline landscapes in terms of soil salinity but more similar to nonsaline habitats with respect to species composition. Results from this study suggest it may be unrealistic to expect that plant communities similar to those found on the predisturbance landscape can be established on all reclaimed landscapes after oil sands mining.