Date of this Version
Published in Plant Ecology 217:8 (2016), pp. 969–983; doi: 10.1007/s11258-016-0622-9
Understanding of Sandhills prairie, the most expansive sand dune region stabilized by perennial grasses in the Western Hemisphere, is limited by lack of long-term vegetation data. We used a 26-year dataset to evaluate Sandhills prairie responses to yearto- year variation in precipitation, temperature, and cattle stocking rate. Basal cover, a measurement that is constant seasonally and used to detect long-term changes in bunchgrass vegetation, was measured in 38–40 permanent plots positioned along four transects spanning 769 ha from 1979 to 2007. Across this period, total basal cover averaged 2.4 % and was dominated by warm-season grasses (81.1 %). Schizachyrium scoparium (little bluestem), the dominant warmseason bunchgrass, consisted of 60.0 % relative basal cover. Warm-season grass and total basal cover responded positively to lag 3-year growing season precipitation indicating delayed responses to improved growing season conditions, but these variables also were positively associated with stocking rate. The positive responses may be due to slow spread of warmseason grasses by vegetative structures in response to favorable growing conditions in light to moderately stocked rangeland. Despite its dominance, however, warm-season grass cover had no influence on cover of other functional groups providing weak support for competition as regulator of Sandhills prairie composition. Forb cover was best related in a negative manner to 3-year running mean total precipitation, a surprising result that maybe signaling factors governing basal responses in prairie remain largely unresolved. Woody species cover, however, was positively associated with mean growing season temperatures indicating potential of these to spread under warming scenarios.