Studying long-term, large-scale grassland restoration outcomes to improve seeding methods and reveal knowledge gaps.

Published online
28 Sep 2016
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Rinella, M. J. & Espeland, E. K. & Moffatt, B. J.
Contact email(s)

Publication language
USA & Great Plains States of USA


Studies are increasingly investigating effects of large-scale management activities on grassland restoration outcomes. These studies are providing useful comparisons among currently used management strategies, but not the novel strategies needed to rapidly improve restoration efforts. Here we illustrate how managing restoration projects adaptively can allow promising management innovations to be identified and tested. We studied 327 Great Plains fields seeded after coal mining. We modelled plant responses to management strategies to identify the most effective previously used strategies for constraining weeds and establishing desired plants. Then, we used the model to predict responses to new strategies our analysis identified as potentially more effective. Where established, the weed crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum L.) increased through time, indicating a need to manage establishment of this grass. Seeding particular grasses reduced annual weed cover, and because these grasses appeared to become similarly abundant whether sown at low or high rates, low rates could likely be safely used to reduce seeding costs. More importantly, lower than average grass seed rates increased cover of shrubs, the plants most difficult to restore to many grassland ecosystems. After identifying grass seed rates as a driver, we formulated model predictions for rates below the range managers typically use. These predictions require testing but indicated atypically low grass seed rates would further increase shrubs without hindering long-term grass stand development. Synthesis and applications. Designing management around empirically based predictions is a logical next step towards improving ecological restoration efforts. Our predictions are that reducing grass seed rates to atypically low levels will boost shrubs without compromising grasses. Because these predictions derive from the fitted model, they represent quantitative hypotheses based on current understanding of the system. Generating data needed to test and update these hypotheses will require monitoring responses to shifts in management, specifically shifts to lower grass seed ates. A paucity of data for confronting hypotheses has been a major sticking point hindering adaptive management of most natural resources, but this need not be the case with degraded grasslands, because ongoing restoration efforts around the globe are providing continuous opportunities to monitor and manage processes regulating grassland restoration outcomes.

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