A dam in the drylands: soil geomorphic treatments facilitate recruitment of the endangered Santa Ana River woolly star.
The long-term management of aridland riparian ecosystems impacted by dams is crucial to reduce losses of biodiversity, reduce extinction risks for species, and restore ecosystem services. When dams preclude natural flow, safeguarding aridland riparian ecosystems adapted to infrequent, catastrophic floods poses additional challenges owing to the need to consider biological and pattern legacies. Seven Oaks Dam (California, USA) eliminated the occurrence of flooding, scouring, and deposition across the rare plant community downstream. This Riversidian alluvial fan sage scrub or alluvial scrub includes one of the most endangered plants in California, Eriastrum densifolium spp. sanctorum (Santa Ana River woolly star, hereafter called woolly star). In this study, we evaluated the impact of six soil geomorphic treatments on alluvial scrub and woolly star re-establishment after 5, 7.5, and 13 yr. We implemented a complete randomized block design, with each block incorporating six treatments: cleared, diked, cut, filled-10 (10 cm soil), filled-20 (20 cm), and filled-30 (30 cm), mimicking one or more physical disturbances (pattern legacy) occurring after a natural flood event. We performed plant community surveys (cover, abundance, maturity, invasibility, diversity) on full plots in 2006, representing 7.5 yr of response from the original 1999 treatment, and on half-plots in 2012, representing 5 yr of response following re-disturbance in 2007, and 13 yr of response on half-plots left intact since 1999. We found very limited recruitment of woolly star into control plots (1.2% cover). By contrast, the cut treatment showed consistently higher cover of woolly star (25.3%, 53.4%, 14.3%), after 5, 7.5, and 13 yr, respectively. Other treatments showed responses ranging between these extremes. Similar results were found for total native cover and diversity. Woolly star cover was inversely related to alien grass cover, suggesting that exotic grass invasions inhibit early recovery of the perennial. The re-establishment of base flows and flood pulses or soil geomorphic disturbances that mimic pattern legacies associated with infrequent, catastrophic flooding could be implemented to sustain downstream ecosystems that include woolly star populations. In the absence of such actions in the Santa Ana River floodplain, the persistence of woolly star as a species appears unlikely.