Question: What are the plant population- and community-level effects of removal of dominant plant species in the shortgrass steppe?
Location: The Shortgrass Steppe Long-Term Ecological Research site in northern Colorado, USA.
Methods: We annually measured plant cover and density by species for 10 years after a one-time aboveground removal of the dominant perennial grass, Bouteloua gracilis. Removal and control plots (3 m × 3 m) were within grazed and ungrazed locations to assess the influence of grazing on recovery dynamics. Our analyses examined plant species, functional type, and community responses to removal, paying special attention to the dynamics of subdominant and rare species.
Results: Basal cover of B. gracilis increased by an average of 1% per year, but there was significantly less plant cover in treatment compared to control plots for 5 years following removal. In contrast to the lower cover in treatment plots, the plant density (number of plants m−2) of certain subdominant perennial grasses, herbaceous perennial and annual forbs, a dwarf shrub, and cactus increased after removal of the dominant species, with no major change in species richness (number of species per 1 m × 1 m) or diversity. Subdominant species were more similar between years than rare species, but dominant removal resulted in significantly lower similarity of the subdominant species in the short term and increased the similarity of rare species in the long term.
Conclusions: Removal of B. gracilis, the dominant perennial grass in the shortgrass steppe, increased the absolute density of subdominant plants, but caused little compensation of plant cover by other plants in the community and changes in species diversity.