Plant community trajectories following livestock exclusion for conservation vary and hinge on initial invasion and soil-biocrust conditions in shrub steppe

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Field surveys revealed that bare-soil exposure decreased >20% over the 14 years owing to biomass accumulation, but this was primarily due to large increases in exotic annual “cheatgrass” (Bromus tectorum, +1.8-fold) and the litter it produces (+1.5-fold). Soil biocrusts increased 11.9% and perennial bunchgrasses increased 3% over the 14 years. These community changes varied at the patch scale and entailed inverse relationships of (1) both cheatgrass and biocrusts to plant-community basal cover, (2) cheatgrass to both biocrusts and perennial grasses, and (3) biocrusts to cheatgrass and litter. The spatiotemporal variability in vegetation constituted changes in plant-community states, according to cluster analysis. The modeled probability of a community transitioning to a cheatgrass state was (1) strongly and positively related to the initial (2007) cover of cheatgrass in hotspots where initial cheatgrass cover was >20%, and (2) negatively related to biocrust cover where initial biocrust cover was >4% of ground area. The decision space for this landscape can be framed as a shifting from acceptance towards resisting further degradation by removing livestock and their trampling of soil surfaces and utilization of perennial herbs. However, cheatgrass appears to be the most impactful agent of change and continued invasion appears imminent. Active restoration may help resist further degradation and direct change towards tolerable conditions

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