Plant-soil feedbacks and invasion in sagebrush steppe ecosystems
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Invasion by non-native species is a serious ecological threat and the susceptibility of ecosystems to invasion is often highly correlated with soil resource availability. Understanding the role of plant-soil feedbacks in invaded ecosystems could provide insight into community successional trajectories following invasion and could improve our ability to manage these systems to restore native diversity. My dissertation examined how plant-soil feedbacks and resource availability influence the success of both cheatgrass and native species with three interrelated studies. In a large-scale observational study, I evaluated plant community characteristics as well as soil and plant nutrients associated with progressive cheatgrass invasion in a broadly distributed sagebrush ecological site type. I found that although many nutrient pools did not differ among levels of invasion, soil ammonium (NH4+) was negatively affected by increases in cheatgrass cover. Also, cheatgrass nutrient content did not differ across sites indicating that cheatgrass may alter plant available soil nutrients to the detriment of competitors while maintaining its own nutritional content via high nutrient use efficiency and/or soil mining. I also conducted a field experiment to provide a more mechanistic understanding of the role of disturbance on nutrient availability and invasion and to address potential management approaches. I evaluated the effects of 4-5 years of repeated burning, in combination with litter removal and post-fire seeding, on nutrient dynamics and plant responses. Results from my field experiment indicated that repeated burning is unlikely to decrease soil N availability in cheatgrass-dominated systems due to cool fire temperatures that do not volatilize biomass N and strong effects of weather on plant growth and soil processes. Repeated burning and litter removal, however, did have negative effects on litter biomass and C and N contents which negatively influenced cheatgrass biomass, density and reproduction. In addition, post-fire seeding with common wheat decreased cheatgrass abundance, likely due to competition. Integrated restoration approaches that decrease litter biomass and seed banks and increase competitive interactions may be more effective at reducing annual grasses and establishing desirable perennial species than approaches aimed at reducing soil nutrients. Together, the observational and experimental components of my dissertation indicate that plant-soil feedbacks in arid sagebrush shrublands are complex and that understanding these feedbacks requires both spatial and temporal variability in sampling. Furthermore, the results from these studies provide valuable information on techniques that could facilitate the restoration of cheatgrass-dominated systems to more diverse plant communities.