National Park Service


Date of this Version



Natural Resource Data Series NPS/NGPN/NRDS 2013/570 / NPS 317/122531, October 2013: v, 17 pages

Published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Natural Resource Stewardship and Science, Fort Collins, Colorado

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Please cite this publication as:

Ashton, I. W., and M . Prowatzke. 2013. Plant community composition and structure monitoring in Scotts Bluff National Monument: 2013 annual report. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NGPN/NRDS—2013/570. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.


United States government publication. Public domain material.



During the last century, much of the prairie within the Northern Great Plains has been plowed for cropland, planted with non-natives to maximize livestock production, or otherwise developed, making it one of the most threatened ecosystems in the United States. Within Nebraska, greater than 77% of the area of native mixed grass prairie has been lost since European settlement (Samson and Knopf 1994). The National Park Service (NPS) plays an important role in preserving and restoring some of the last pieces of intact prairies within its boundaries. The stewardship goal of the NPS is to “preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historical authenticity” (NPS 2012); however, resource managers struggle with the grim reality that there have been fundamental changes in the disturbance regimes, such as climate, fire, and grazing by large, native herbivores, that have historically maintained prairies and there is the continual pressure of exotic invasive species. Long-term monitoring in national parks is essential to sound management of prairie landscapes because it can provide information on environmental quality and condition, benchmarks of ecological integrity, and early warning of declines in ecosystem health.

Scotts Bluff National Monument (SCBL), established in 1919 to protect and preserve two iconic bluffs and the associated heritage of western expansion, covers 3,003 acres and is dominated by mixed-grass prairie with smaller areas of juniper woodlands, badlands, and riparian forests. Vegetation monitoring began in SCBL in 1997 by the Heartland Inventory & Monitoring Program (James 2010) and the Northern Great Plains Fire Ecology Program (FireEP; Wienk et al. 2011). In 2010, SCBL was incorporated into the Northern Great Plains Inventory & Monitoring Network (NGPN). At this time, vegetation monitoring protocols and plot locations were shifted to better represent the entire park and to coordinate efforts with the FireEP (Symstad et al. 2012b), and sampling efforts began in 2011 (Ashton et al. 2011). The long-term objectives of the NGPN plant community monitoring effort in SCBL are to:

1. Determine park-wide status and long-term trends in vegetation species composition (e.g. exotic vs. native) and structure (e.g. cover, height) of herbaceous and shrub species.

2. Determine status (at 5-year intervals) and long-term trends of tree density by species, height class, and diameter class in lowland areas near targeted perennial streams.

3. Improve our understanding of the effects of external drivers and management actions on plant community species composition and structure by correlating changes in vegetation composition and structure with changes in climate, landscape patterns, atmospheric chemical composition, fire, and invasive plant control.

This report is intended to provide a timely release of basic data sets and data summaries from our sampling efforts in 2013 at SCBL. We visited eight plots in a rotating panel design, and it will take two more years to visit every plot in the park twice. In addition, we surveyed vegetation in four plots that were first installed in 1997 by the Heartland Inventory & Monitoring Network. These plots are concentrated in the northeast corner of the park to evaluate the effectiveness of a golf course restoration project. We expect to produce reports with more in-depth data analysis and interpretation when we complete five years of sampling. In the interim, reports, spatial data, and data summaries can be provided for park management and interpretation upon request.