Plant Community Recovery Following Restoration in Semiarid Grasslands


  • Seth M. Munson,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Forest, Rangeland, and Watershed Stewardship, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, U.S.A.
    2. Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523, U.S.A.
    3. Current address: USGS-Southwest Biological Science Center, Canyonlands Research Station, 2290 S. West Resource Blvd., Moab, UT 84532, U.S.A.
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  • William K. Lauenroth

    1. Department of Botany and Program in Ecology, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071, U.S.A.
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S. M. Munson, email


The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is an extensive land use in the United States, which restores cultivated land to perennial vegetation through seeding. Low precipitation and high potential evapotranspiration are major limitations to the establishment and growth of seeded species in semiarid regions. We tested the rate of development of plant functional types across a chronosequence of restored fields using a model of plant succession. We also determined how the seeding of non-native (introduced) relative to native perennial grasses influenced plant community recovery. In contrast to the native shortgrass steppe (SGS), recently seeded CRP fields had high cover of annuals, forbs, C3, and introduced species. The seed mix determined which perennial grasses dominated the plant community within 18 years, but slow establishment prolonged early seral stages, allowed for the spread of colonizing perennial grasses, and limited recovery to less than half the canopy cover of undisturbed shortrass steppe. Species density declined in restored fields as seeded perennial grass cover increased and was lower in CRP fields seeded with introduced compared to native perennial grasses. Plant community composition transitioned to C4 and native species, even if fields were not seeded with these species, and was modified by shifts in the amount and seasonality of precipitation. Thus, in semiarid CRP fields, we found that the potential for recovery depended on time since CRP enrollment, seed mix, and climatic variability. Full recovery, based on similarity to vegetation cover and composition of undisturbed SGS, requires greater than 20 years.