Long-term vegetation responses to pinyon-juniper woodland reduction treatments in Nevada, USA.
Expansion of native pinyon-juniper (Pinus monophylla-Juniperus osteosperma) woodlands can decrease shrub and herbaceous cover in the Intermountain West, U.S., affecting habitat quality and biodiversity. Removing pinyon-juniper woodlands in former sagebrush ecosystems to increase understory cover has a long management history, and short- and long-term monitoring reveal different understory plant community responses. We revisited a 500 mm average precipitation site in the sagebrush steppe of western Nevada, 32 years after three types of tree thinning treatments and seeding had occurred in a mature, closed-canopy woodland. We measured vegetation foliar cover and density within plots arranged in a 3-block randomized design. We found significantly lower cover of P. monophylla in treated plots (average of 2-8%), relative to controls (32%). However, P. monophylla seedlings (<0.5 m tall) were detected throughout all plots (average of 86-160 trees/ha in treated plots, 111 in controls). Cover of perennial graminoids and shrubs was higher in all treatments (600-870% higher grass cover and 470-570% higher shrub cover) than controls. Cover of invasive annual species, primarily Bromus tectorum, was highly variable and not significantly different among plots, but B. tectorum had the highest cover of all species in two of the three woodland removal treatment types. Control plots contained significantly larger perennial canopy gaps compared to all treatments (average of 318 cm vs. 104-133 cm), and had significantly more woody litter cover than clear cut plots (average of 14% vs. 3%). These results suggest tree thinning and removal in tree dominated woodlands can increase shrub and perennial grass cover and reduce litter and canopy gaps, especially in conjunction with seeding, but that tree recolonization over the long-term is inevitable. Perennial forbs did not respond well to treatments (<1% average foliar cover in all plots), and seeding or other treatments may be needed to improve their response. Further, if tree seedlings survive, these plots will likely return to tree dominance without additional treatments.