Invasive competitor and native seed predators contribute to rarity of the narrow endemic Astragalus sinuatus Piper


  • Corresponding Editor: J. Belnap.


The conservation of rare plant species hinges on our ability to identify the underlying mechanisms that limit rare plant populations. Theory on rarity suggests that both predispersal seed predation and competition can be important mechanisms influencing abundance and/or distribution of rare plant populations. Yet few studies have tested these interactions, and those that have evaluated each mechanism independently. Astragalus sinuatus Piper (Whited's milkvetch) is a narrow endemic plant species restricted to eight populations within a 10-km2 area in eastern Washington. We used experimental and observational methods to test the effects of native insect predispersal seed predators and an invasive grass (Bromus tectorum L. [cheatgrass]) on seed set and population density of A. sinuatus. We quantified per capita seed production and pod predation rates across four sites and among four years. Seed predation rates were high across four sites (66–82%) and all years (65−82%). Experimental reduction of predispersal seed predators significantly increased per capita seed set of A. sinuatus (164−345%) at two experimental sites. Concurrently, two seed addition experiments demonstrated the effect of seed loss and presence of B. tectorum on seedling recruitment and establishment of A. sinuatus over four growing seasons. In the first seed addition experiment, we found no difference in recruitment and establishment between low (40) and high (120) seed addition levels. In the second addition experiment (one level of addition; 40 seeds), we found that recruitment and survivorship increased 200% in plots where B. tectorum was removed compared to plots where B. tectorum was present. Thus, seed addition had no impact in the presence of B. tectorum; conversely, in the absence of B. tectorum, seed addition was highly effective at increasing population numbers. Results suggest that, in areas where B. tectorum is present, recruitment is site limited, and it is seed limited when B. tectorum is absent. We recommend that managers reduce B. tectorum in an effort to increase population growth of A. sinuatus; in areas where B. tectorum is absent, short-term reduction of insect predators should be considered as a strategy to increase population growth of this rare species.