Reclamation strategies for mined forest soils and overstorey drive understorey vegetation.
Understorey vegetation accounts for the majority of plant diversity in boreal forest ecosystems and contributes to ecosystem functioning. In restoration of degraded forested ecosystems, however, understorey vegetation is often restored passively, contrasting to clear strategies such as informed species choice and site improvement intervention for overstorey vegetation. The choice of overstorey-centred restoration strategy may have important consequences for understorey vegetation. We examined the effects of substrate material, overstorey type and time since reclamation (age) on understorey vegetation following reclamation of oil sands mining in Alberta, Canada. We sampled cover, richness, evenness and composition of understorey vegetation at 94 sites of conifer, mixedwood and broadleaf overstorey types on three reclamation substrates (overburden, secondary overburden and tailings sand), with age ranging from 4 to 30 years. Total, woody and non-woody understorey cover and species richness were the highest on secondary overburden and the lowest on tailings sand, and total cover also decreased with age. Woody cover and richness were the highest under broadleaf overstorey, while non-woody cover and richness were the lowest under conifer overstorey. Overall species evenness was not significantly affected by substrate type, overstorey type or age, but woody evenness was the highest on secondary overburden and the lowest on tailings sand, and non-woody evenness showed overstorey-dependent responses to age. Species composition varied with substrate type, overstorey type and age. Indicator species analysis revealed that tailings sand with conifer overstorey favoured grasses, while overburden and secondary overburden supported a mix of grasses, forbs and shrubs. Synthesis and applications. Our study demonstrates that overstorey-centred reclamation strategies impact the abundance, diversity and composition of understorey plant communities following oil sands mining. Landforms constructed with secondary overburden substrates and revegetated with mixedwood or broadleaf tree species provide the most favourable habitats for understorey vegetation, while tailings sand provide a poor substrate for understorey species diversity and composition. We therefore recommend utilizing secondary overburden and overburden substrate material during landform construction, and employing revegetation prescriptions that target mixedwood and broadleaf overstorey types to promote productive and diverse understorey plant communities on the reclaimed landscape.