Vernal pool wetlands respond to livestock grazing, exclusion and reintroduction.
In disturbance-adapted ecosystems, the removal of disturbance can lead to losses of diversity and sometimes irreversible changes in community composition. It is important to identify the thresholds at which these changes can occur, and to understand the reversibility of these shifts. We examined this question in a vernal pool ecosystem that evolved with low to moderate levels of grazing disturbance. In this system, it is not clear whether the negative effects of long-term grazing exclusion are reversible through grazing reintroduction. We compared adjacent vernal pool wetlands in annual Mediterranean grasslands under three grazing management strategies: continuously grazed (100+ years), long-term excluded (40+ years) and 2 years of reintroduced grazing. We also asked whether grazing treatments altered pool characteristics that are likely to influence plant community composition, and how these relationships changed with environmental conditions. Reintroducing grazing to vernal pools led to both increased diversity and native cover, but the effects on native cover were more immediate than on diversity. We identified several biotic and abiotic mechanisms related to this pattern, including changes to competitive dynamics that favour small statured native annuals and increases in hoofprint microdepressions that make soil moisture more available to plants. Synthesis and applications. Our results show that reintroduced grazing at moderate stocking rates can have significant effects on plant communities after just 2 years and can increase native cover more quickly than overall diversity. Our findings suggest that the negative effects of long-term grazing exclusion in vernal pools may be reversible, but that land managers interested in restoring diversity should plan to monitor beyond the first two years of grazing reintroduction.