Preventing woody shrubs from swallowing grasslands a burning issue

October 20, 2014

More than 300 years ago, bison and periodic fires helped to maintain the Southern Great Plains as grasslands. Fast forward to the permanent European settlement in the 1800s -- the establishment of livestock grazing and the elimination of fire from the system has since created an environment that is sapping the resilience of the grasslands.

A team of scientists from four universities, including Virginia Tech, has received a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to determine how to slow the encroachment of woodlands that is occurring on the Great Plains despite current rangeland management.

"Once these grasslands convert to woodlands, restoration can be very difficult and can cause a lot of hardship for rural communities," said Michael Sorice, an assistant professor of outdoor recreation and human dimensions in Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment. "The best approach is to understand both the social and ecological factors that facilitate or inhibit this change in the first place."

The research project, led by Brad Wilcox, a professor of ecosystem science and management at Texas A&M University, includes looking at governmental policies and social attitudes on the use of fire to reduce the vulnerability of grasslands to the invasion of woody plants.

The team will also determine the impact of the conversion of grassland to woodland on ecological services, such as forage production, groundwater recovery, stream flow, and the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The researchers will compare three regions with contrasting degrees of woody encroachment in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. They will analyze the factors that influence decision making by land managers with respect to the use of prescribed fire and project changes in regional woody plant cover under different scenarios of fire management.

Wilcox, who has researched how woody plants and their management on rangelands affect stream flows and groundwater, will be joined on the three-year project by Willem van Leeuwen, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, who studies post wildfire recovery, land degradation, and human impacts on land surface; Chris Zou, an associate professor at Oklahoma State University, who studies rangeland hydrology; Urs Kreuter, a professor of ecosystem science and management at Texas A&M, who studies human dimensions and socio-economics of rangeland; and Sorice, who studies the social forces that historically and currently drive land-use decisions affecting rangelands.

"I'm interested in finding that threshold at which people move from inaction to action to prevent grassland conversion," Sorice said. "Overall, I want to understand how landowners in the Southern Great Plains perceive and interpret feedback from the rangeland system, judge risk, and make decisions about land management."

Results are expected to enhance the scientific basis for maintaining economically valuable grasslands.

The project will also provide Web-based educational materials, workshops, and tools for private landowners, extension agents, U.S. Department of Agriculture staff, and K-12 science teachers.

Sorice, Kreuter, and Wilcox have collaborated and co-authored a number of publications. Articles on the role of prescribed fires in rangeland ecosystems have appeared in the journals Rangelands, Ecology and Society, and the Journal of Environmental Management, and those examining private landowner motivations and implications for grasslands have appeared in the Journal of Arid Environments, the Journal of Environmental Management, and Rangeland Ecology & Management.
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Virginia Tech

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